There are two things people often reference when talking about thrillers, and those are director Alfred Hitchcock and the film Taxi Driver. The former is a general descriptor of mood, technique, and stories of murder, insanity, or obsession. The latter almost always pertains to similarities between the main character of the film in question and Taxi Driver’s antihero Travis Bickle. These allusions come up so often that they could potentially be considered hallmarks of modern thrillers, and to play with Hitchcock’s style or Bickle-esque character traits might end up becoming a full out genre exercise. You Were Never Really Here manifests these influences more blatantly than in other, similar films. Due that, director Lynne Ramsay achieves a powerful subversions just by way of a little retooling.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former combat veteran with PTSD. He works as a hired gun, finding and rescuing trafficked girls. When a state senator’s daughter is abducted and held at a brothel, Joe becomes involved in a conspiracy far beyond his wheelhouse. This immediately calls to mind Bickle’s delusional mission to save the young prostitute, Iris, as well as Scottie’s pursuit of Judy/Carlotta in Vertigo. Neither, however, follow their path for the same humanistic reasons as Joe. Just as willing to assassinate a politician as he is to rescue a victim, Bickle’s motivations are inner and tied up with disgust and misanthropy. He gets off on killing perceived bad guys more than he does being a rescuer. Scottie’s ostensibly lawful pursuit is a veil for his obsessive, prurient tendencies. His job as an investigator gets more and more predatory as Judy eludes him. Just the opposite, Joe is bound by a sense of moral duty. Brief flashbacks cut in with near-subliminal edits, economically hinting at his feelings of obligation, specifically to women and children, and illustrating the frenetic nature of his illness. Augmenting this fractured and intense atmosphere is a brilliant, disjointed score by Jonny Greenwood and vibrant and methodically framed nocturnal city aesthetic which recalls the Korean revenge/vigilante film Oldboy. Fittingly, Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer.
Also like Bickle and Scotty, Joe embodies grunge and brutish calm along with shrewdness and professionalism, respectively. Efficient, curt, and avoiding conflict when possible, he is also unkempt and, due to his self-imposed involvement in the crime world, causes a fair share of bloodshed. Phoenix faces a challenge in striking that balance, and succeeds with impressive subtlety. Joe’s trauma also bears striking similarities to the aforementioned archetypal characters, but in those films, Bickle and Scotty are shown to be infected with derangement, poisoning others with their mental and moral deficiency. Their illness is almost like a weapon in and of itself. Rather than going the normal route of letting Joe’s trauma harden him, it’s one of the major things that sets him apart from the violent, hyper-masculine savior subtype, à la The Punisher. Joe’s PTSD makes him vulnerable, but more importantly it makes him empathetic. The brief but poignant relationship he has with Nina, the politicians daughter, forms on the basis of mutual understanding, compassion, and good will. As a result, Nina is never objectified either as a hero’s goal or a catalyst for his self-actualization. They both depend on each other for their salvation, providing an exhilarating and refreshing equanimity to the victim/rescuer dynamic so often seen in this type of film.
You Were Never Really Here, finally, rings of the familiar “descent-into-hell” story. And while the narrative does send the main character into great peril—a level of darkness and sorrow he never knew could exist beyond the pain he’s already experienced—the ultimate picture is more of an escape from hell. The journey is permeated by horrid realities, violence, and anguish, but there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. For Joe, it may be the first light he’s seen so far. | Nic Champion