You Were Never Really Here

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Please note that this article contains spoilers

Known for her complex characters and cutting-edge filmmaking, Lynne Ramsay’s latest work can draw comparisons to her previous films. The Scottish director does not shy away from taboos and depicting the unthinkable. In her debut Ratcatcher (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 1999), Glasgow is swarming with waste as rats take over the city due to the bin men strike of 1973; in Morvern Callar (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2002), Ramsay explores selfishness and offers an astonishing portayal of a woman who, upon discovering her partner had committed suicide, uses the funeral money left by him to leave Scotland and submits his unpublished novel to an agent as her own work; We Need to Talk About Kevin (Dir. Lynne Ramsay, 2011) depicts the tragedy of being a mother of a murderer.

 Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here tells the story of Joe, an ex-marine and FBI agent whose current job involves rescuing girls from paedophile circles and returning them to their rich parents. Throughout the film, we follow the main protagonist on his mission to bring back the daughter of Senator Votto but soon enough the kidnapping turns out to be an elaborate stunt by corrupt politicians. Joe does not speak much but the viewer can still find out a lot about him. Tortured by memories of his abusive childhood, the horrors of the Gulf War and FBI cases involving victims he could not have saved, he becomes determined to solve the case and help Nina. In Joaquin Phoenix’s own words, the film talks about ‘the impotence of masculinity’.[1] 

And, even thought it is not obvious from the very start, that is exactly what You Were Never Really Here is concerned with. At first Joe seems resigned, tired and emotionless. Once he gets home to his mother we finally see another side of him; his home life seems ordinary – he feels affection towards his mother, sometimes gets annoyed with her and does the housework – nothing out of ordinary there. When Joe gets home, his mother is watching Psycho. Ramsay’s choice to introduce this into the narrative is very clever. It deceives the viewer who is ready to accept that Joe himself is somewhat a psychopath. He seems to have no problem with violently killing off people, he spends a big chunk of his time with a head in a plastic bag and he has a reputation of being brutal. However, as his back story unravels we see that he can be violent, but only towards people who deserve it; he does nearly choke himself on a regular basis but it is a result of the childhood trauma. Phoenix’s character is not a thoughtless killing machine – he frequently gets tortured by his own thoughts and, if he wishes to, he does find a way to express his emotions. Ultimately, when he has the opportunity to torture one of the men who had broken into his house and killed his mother, he offers him a painkiller, lies down next to him, holds his hand and sings with him. He recognises they both share the same profession and does not want him to die alone.

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The early version of the film, shown at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, secured the Best Screenplay award for Ramsay and Best Actor award for Phoenix. One of the reasons for the film’s success might be a great director-actor relationship on the shoot. Ramsay is well-known for getting close and personal with her actors, which Phoenix had an opportunity to find out as early as on the first day. The last shot of the day was Joe floating in the pool and ‘(…) she [Ramsay] just got in the pool with me, and just was there with me, right off-camera (…) when we were done, she was like, ‘I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and popped in the car soaking wet’ says Phoenix.[2]

Once asked about what makes a good film, Ramsay replied ‘[it] has to tell a good story, but more than that, it has to know how to manipulate the language of cinema. To touch me, a film has to be very visual. The sound, the music and the characters are also very important criteria.’[3] Indeed, the music plays a very important role in the film. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s tense and attention-grabbing score makes the viewer feel slightly nervous from the very beginning of the film. Some crucial scenes have also been paired with songs whose lyrics make the tragic events seem even more striking. The brutal scenes in the paedophile brothel, which we follow through a CCTV footage, unravel to the sound of Rosie & The Originals’ ‘Angel Baby’; and the man dying in the kitchen floor of Joe’s house takes his last breath to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’.

Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a spectacle of contradictions: those in power turn out to be corrupted, unethical and violent; the pink and plush childhood bedroom in Senator Williams’ house is where he keeps his teenage victim; his entire house, full of sculptures and paintings, represents education and culture yet he himself is nothing more than a predator and a paedophile. Surprisingly, the moral compass of our anti-hero seems like the one working best in the whole film.

 Ramsay’s newest offering does not fall short of her previous work. The viewer must constantly work in order to distinguish the reality from Joe’s hallucinations. The director does not avoid talking about difficult subjects such as paedophilia, the crisis of masculinity or corruption. But that is exactly why her voice matters so much in the modern filmmaking – her name guarantees there will be no sugar-coated or easy topics. And that’s the beauty of Lynne Ramsay’s cinema.

Alicja Tokarska

Freelance writer and translator
February 2018


[1] Anthony D’Allesandro, ‘How Lynne Ramsay Got Over ‘Jane Got A Gun’ & Embraced Joaquin Phoenix Noir ‘You Were Never Really Here’ – Cannes’, Deadline, 28 May 2017:

[2] Julie Miller, ‘Here’s How Much Joaquin Phoenix Trusted Lynne Ramsay’, Vanity Fair, 25 May 2017:

[3] Benoit Pavan, ‘INTERVIEW – Lynne Ramsay: “I like to push the forms of visual expression to their limit.”’, Festival de Cannes, 23 May 2013:

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