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Film Reviews

Like a dream: trauma and violence in You Were Never Really Here

Written by Dylan Henty

Beginning in the dark, with noise like fireworks and an uncomfortable ringing in the ears, a mumbling, disjointed voice rambles the words of an abuser, hatefully remembered by his victim.

The delicacy in moments of Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here seem to barely fit the ‘revenge’ genre, yet it is wholly concerned with ‘revenge’, and everything associated with it, for every second of its tense but beautiful ninety minutes. Following ‘Joe’, a man hired to find lost children, Lynne Ramsey’s in-turn violently fast and serenely-calm direction, and Joaquin Phoenix’s tragically damaged performance, turn the story into a deeply personal exposure of the realities and dis-reality of the consequences of violence, and the effects of trauma.

In the worst moments in life, single, seemingly unimportant details often become the only thing in focus; it is with this constantly in mind that the film translates Joe’s experience, a man so fleetingly attached to reality after years of accumulated damage, that he seems to exist only within these moments, like psychic anchors, drifting from one to the next. A scene showing a ‘clean up’ after one of his jobs is a series of details, which only together make up a narrative: a burning photograph, wiping the blood from a hammer, a necklace on a bed. Trauma is a disorder of context, where the past constantly dictates the present; this is why, whilst it would be easy to shoehorn the film into the ‘art film’ genre, as I’m sure people have, it is more significantly an exercise in expressionism, an attempt at showing through form and structure how people, like Joe, experience the world. Every moment makes sense, but only when you understand the moments that came before.

“Whilst the character’s histories are never spelled out, they are always there, giving the connections you can make from the abstract details revealed all the more impactful”

The film’s narrative is linear, and essentially straight forward, but muddied by the constant intrusion of the past. We are dropped into Joe’s experience, a man hired to rescue run-away children, beating their kidnappers viciously, caring tenderly for his elderly mother: all the time with the over-bearing implication that there is something terrible behind him, shaping who he is in every moment, for better and worse. Ramsey, whose sensory, tactile style has been compared more to creating music than film (Romney, 2011), gives every moment weight, and depth: the beautiful cinematography showing the scars on Joe’s body; bright, disorienting flashes of the desert, heavily hinting at time in the army which is never addressed except in these single disorienting images.

Whilst the character’s histories are never spelled out, they are always there, giving the connections you can make from the abstract details revealed all the more impactful. Phoenix’s character, frequently shown to be fragile to the point of mental collapse, almost imperceptibly smiles when a client says to him:
“I heard you were brutal”
and he replies:
“I can be.”
And when it is implied through these feverous, intrusive flashbacks that his father beat him and his mother with a ball-peen hammer, Joe’s use of the same weapon against people who kidnap and abuse children is given all the more significance.

The treatment of violence in the film is one of it’s most impressive, and surprisingly complex elements. The violent acts which usually comprise the bulk of revenge films are approached contextually: the focus is on the aftermath, the trauma of each individual act, and the toll it takes on the characters who enact them. One of the film’s most memorable sequences, shot in disjointed, wide angle black and white CCTV footage, shows Joe searching an under-age brothel, attacking the patrons and guards whilst a crooning love song plays over the speakers. The violence is shown at times off frame, at times implied, at times briefly seen but for just a moment before quickly focusing elsewhere: leaving the viscera to the audience’s imagination, who get a disjointed, sparse view of events, stripping the acts of any feelings of retribution, or catharses. More like a dream, everything just happens, one moment following the next.

It’s in the moments when the sympathetic and tormented characters gain some semblance of peace, or calm, even if just for a second, that the film truly stands out. Ramsey’s pairing of the beautiful and the horrible elevates everything far above the usual revenge film: for example in the moments after Nina, the 13-year-old girl and second protagonist, is rescued, the camera focuses on her sitting, watching water droplets trickle through her hair. The scene is entirely sensory, the focus and lighting make it so you can almost feel the water: Ramsey translates the calm depth of a moment after a terrible, violent event into a single image, which only lasts for a few seconds, and would be beautiful, but meaningless, without the knowledge of what had occurred before it.

“Ramsey’s pairing of the beautiful and the horrible elevates everything far above the usual revenge film”

Ultimately the film’s exploration of trauma, the aftermath and effects of violence, and how this marks the people who live with them, is touching, and delicate. Showing the extent to which the serene and beautiful can co-exist with the violent and terrible things that happen, not in an attempt to justify suffering’s existence, but simply to show that this is how the world is: the film never condemns the world, or the people in it, but most importantly never celebrates violence for a single moment, treating it as a sad truth, and something that always makes things a little bit worse, even when it’s making them better.