On the surface, you’ve definitely seen stories similar to You Were Never Really Here before. It follows Joe, an ex-veteran/FBI agent turned vigilante hero. His stoic masculine character trope has been explored in genre thrillers of this kind, such as Drive and most comparatively to Taxi Driver. The former a tired, male fantasy with regressive messages of masculinity and chivalric romance, the latter being an interesting study of masculinity, the main character played by De Niro going on a path to self-destruction to cope with his isolation. These movies both show a celebratory and a critical side to a masculine hero, perspectives both painted by white male directors.
What makes You Were Never Really Here a valuable addition to this canon of masculine genre thrillers, is that it becomes a character study to reveal a new kind of masculinity offered by a female director (Lynne Ramsay) that these previously mentioned films do not offer. But rather than showing a toxic male character on screen and showing his path of destruction like Scorsese did, Ramsay shows a new kind of masculine character under her own perspective. Portrayed with a career best performance by Joaquin Phoenix, Joe is a unique character to this genre because while he rescues girls sold off in human trafficking through methods of violence, but he doesn’t revel or indulge in violence. Joe suffers with a life of trauma and seeks heroism to cope with his psychological wounds, and learns what greater responsibility means through his experiences.
Through her unique lens, Ramsay captures a vulnerable masculine hero that is allowed to feel. A traditional male hero archetype tends to enjoy hurting other people, and seeks solutions that involve violence to get the job done. Joe suffers with PTSD as a result of an abusive childhood, serving in the military and seeing the horrors of war, and experiencing the crime-filled underbelly of New York as an FBI agent. Joe has been through a lot of pain throughout his life, and he is never shamed by the film to feel this pain.
I appreciated the moments in the film where Joe has to collect himself together before taking on a job, thinking to himself, “what am I doing here?” Despite his desire to save the girls in danger in the shady corners of New York, his hitman job takes him to dark and violent places that triggers him to suicidal tendencies. Joe is a damaged man, and the narrative never frames his psychological torment as a weakness or frames the violence as a good way to cope.
Another refreshing aspect to You Were Never Really Here for me was Joe’s relationship with the women in the film and how the typical “man-pain” trope is handled under the vision of a woman behind the camera. Joe takes care of his elderly mother at home, their interactions offer a refreshing kindness to our protagonist that was nice to see. When she is eventually murdered by the hitmen against Joe, there was a notable level of restraint in the direction of the death scene. We are never shown Joe’s mother getting murdered, we are shown the aftermath, there is no indulgent framing of the violence committed against the women but we do feel all the power the film needs us to feel.
One of my favorite moments in the film was when Joe shoots the agent who killed his mother in the stomach, the agent is left crawling on the floor in pain as Joe asks where Nina was taken and the agent reveals the conspiracy at hand and is aching in guilt. Joe allows him a painkiller and they lay on the floor together singing a song on the radio and hold each other’s hands as the agent passes away. Joe knows the murder was ordered, he knows for this agent it was just a job he wasn’t proud of- Joe’s been there. I loved this moment because while Joe still shot the agent out of rage, there was a quiet connection of humanity and empathy during this moment of desperation of both of these characters. In another movie of this type directed by a male, this sequence of intimacy between hero and “villain” simply wouldn’t exist.
He develops a surrogate paternal relationship with the he girl he is hired to rescue from a brothel, Nina. Joe tells her to close her eyes as he fights their way out of the complex, interested in preserving her innocence. He also offers her drinks and candy in his car after rescuing her, creating trust. Normally in these types of films, you would see a character like Joe act cold or aggressive towards a character like Nina in an effort to not grow attached to them, but Joe became a nourishing figure of Nina early on and it makes their relationship feel more genuine.
As You Were Never Really Here gets to its third act, Joe goes to rescue Nina after trying to kill himself, the job isn’t done until she’s safe. Joe reaches the mansion and finds Nina’s abuser on the ground with his neck slit open. Joe experiences a meltdown thinking he was too late to save her, but finds her in the dinner room with blood on her hands. It was a refreshing twist to see Nina was the one to kill her abuser, as for any other movie the obvious resolution would be to have Joe murder the abuser himself.
The film ends with Joe and Nina at a diner drinking milkshakes, Joe fantasizes about shooting himself right then and there. Nina interrupts and they leave the diner. Nina’s innocence has passed, Joe can’t protect that, but he can be a fatherly figure to her. Joe can’t be fixed, he doesn’t find closure to his trauma or could ever live a normal life, but he has something worth living for. Ramsay’s dissection of a traditional masculine hero doesn’t get an ending of glory, or one of desolate sadness, but she concludes the film with a grounded, shred of hope for her hero.
“It’s a beautiful day.”
“It is a beautiful day.”