(Disclaimer: This review is bound to contain spoilers, but not in a way that matters when it comes to the overall viewing experience, should the reader decide to watch this film.)
“You Were Never Really Here” contains within itself one of the rarest qualities of art, a quality that unites art and death—it has the power to liberate. Walking out of the theatre, I couldn’t help noticing the people outside; they were doing normal human things and being normal human beings, but I felt out of place. That is the power of cinema. It has the power to elevate you above the human experience. I felt this huge rift opening up between the people at the mall and myself. For the last 90 minutes, I’d been exposed to sensations that can only be described as sacred. The film had taken hold over my senses and put me in a helpless haze, which might not have entirely worn off as I write this. No matter where I go or what I do in life, I’ll carry a part of the film with me. When I came out, it felt like I’d been part of something far greater than these people or me—something that had liberated me from this body and this weight of being. Instead, I existed in this separate world inside my mind, part-real, part-imagined, a world way better, way more hopeful than where I was.
I hardly remember being so childishly excited about a film that didn’t have “Star Wars” in its title. It began with me shouting at the top of my voice when the name of the director appeared right in the middle of the trailer. This was followed by months and months of restlessness and anxiety. It culminated with yours truly running like a madman inside a mall, trying to get to the floor where all the cinemas are, speaking in a tone so excited the person at the counter had to ask me to calm down and jumping with excitement towards the auditorium where the film was being screened.
By the time the ending credits rolled, all the childish excitement had withered away. People were leaving the theatre, some absolutely puzzled (“bizarre movie”, the elderly lady sitting next to me said as she got up from her seat), some blown away, some trying to figure it out amongst themselves, while I sat there like a madman, my eyes glued to the credits, laughter bellowing from somewhere inside me. I didn’t know why I was laughing, nor could I stop, because it was the only way I could’ve expressed myself. There was no point in staying. It was just the credits rolling in the diner where the last scene takes place, and all that was on the screen was the sound of human activity off-screen, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the screen. There was no earthly reason to hang around. Looking back at it, I think I was laughing because that is the moment where the brilliance of the film had decided to reveal itself. I kept laughing as I exited the theatre. Frame by frame, in the last 90 minutes, “You Were Never Really Here” had blown apart my mind. I had been taken on a ride, and I knew I was not walking out of that theatre the same person who had gone in and jumped in the air in childish excitement. This is what a religious experience must feel like.
“But the beauty of it is this: there is no need to disentangle anything. If one ceases to make the effort, one soon finds that this strange rigmarole holds one’s attention on its own merits.” –Richard Hughes, Introduction to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury”
The elderly lady and the people exiting the theatre, trying to pick the film apart, seemed to be bound by the shackles of our civilization—the kind which teaches you to ruthlessly and ceaselessly apply rational methods of enquiry. Since childhood, many of us are taught in schools about art as something you can get your head around. You just need to understand what the poet wants to say, and you reproduce that on a sheet of paper, and you’re done. It was what I saw in those people. They were wasting their time trying to understand what the film was all about. Their egos were stepping in for them. It’s a very human thing. Our seemingly insatiable egos blind us when it comes to any form of art that eludes. Letting go of that is not easy. Art is meant to be felt and not understood. Once one lets go of all attempts to understand and lets the film flow through them, it becomes easy. Sitting there, watching those people with whom I’d shared something special, I saw that the childish excitement of watching a much-awaited film had withered away and it was replaced by this understanding of what it is to be human—this understanding of how, despite overwhelming odds, life always finds a way. That’s what the film comes down to. It’s the journey of a man trying to realise what it is to be human. I think its art’s greatest achievement—only the best of art can make you feel so many things at a time, and with such intensity. Making the beholder feel lots of things at the same time with such staggering force is why people bother creating art in the first place. It really gives you hope—in this world of reboots and franchises, there exist people who are willing to go above and beyond and trying to make you feel something instead of using films as mere vehicles to earn money.
When we meet him, Joe—played by Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of a lifetime—is in the dark. He’s dead behind the eyes. He is the kind of person who laughs with pleasure from the pain of taking a person’s tooth out. His choice of weapon is the hammer, and he’s merciless when it comes to a fight. He operates without a code. His conscience is a bare thread and sometimes not even enough to hold him together. (“They said you were brutal,” the Senator asks him, to which he replies nonchalantly, “I can be”) The only time he looks or seems like a human is when he is taking care of his frail old mother.
In other words, he’s a bastard.
Although that is not all, there is to it. He has suffered such heavy damage in childhood that he has stopped looking at himself as a whole; he’s numbed the sensations in his head in order to save himself, and he can get through the day only if he can stick to a routine. He has turned out the way he is not because of choice; but because of the damage that he suffered, something that cannot be undone.
Lynne Ramsay, who also wrote the film, basing it upon a novella by Jonathan Ames, weaves the characters so brilliantly that everything percolates to the littlest movements of the character. Joe’s bastardisation is obvious even when he’s looking at himself in the mirror. It’s obvious in the way he looks into the distance, his head resting on the window in the subway. It’s obvious in the way he fights. Joaquin Phoenix, it seems, has become the bastard. He eats up everything that’s given to him in a performance that will not leave the audiences’ minds for a long time. He anchors the poetry flowing through the script and the frame and makes his body a medium where it meets reality. Making a film means stepping outside your individual loneliness and becoming a part of something greater. Every second of the frame carries that energy. It’s the coming together of a lot of souls, all of them stepping outside their own individual lives and becoming something and someone greater than themselves. This is what sets a film apart from everything that has come before or will come afterwards.
This is what makes a film and everyone involved with it immortal.
Joe’s bastardisation is reflected even in his choice of work. He is an ex-FBI agent and now works as a gun for hire. He works for the money, and he’s not concerned with the well-being of the person who stands in front of him and his mission or the consequences of the damage inflicted. He mostly takes jobs for people who are supposed to be on the brighter side of things. He’s in the dark, but he’s trying to hold on to life. But just this once, he runs afoul of people who actively give a damn about their business. They may be criminals, but they care about whatever they do. In a way, they are diametrically opposite to him. They’re not detached. We barely see the villains of the film, because, in a way, they exist inside the head of the protagonist. They actively change him. To anyone who has even the slightest interest in telling a story, take notes: this is how you write a minor character. Although it’s not obvious, every character in the film, no matter how much screen time they receive, has a point. The minor characters only add momentum to the plot. Everything and everyone happens for a reason. Under the garb of a crime thriller which deals with the corruption and vile abuse of power inherent in the democratic system of government, this film takes us into the head of the protagonist, and through external means, takes us through his character arc. It’s poetry. It’s lyrical, it’s terse, and it holds the power to change anyone who comes across it. This is the mark of a great director, and Lynne Ramsay is at the top of her game in “You Were Never Really Here”.
And due to actions, some his own, some caused by the people around him, he loses everything. On another layer, this is also reflected in his mindset: he’s only partially responsible for the way he turned out. The damage is not entirely his own. He’s in the dark, and that is exactly where his demons thrive. He can’t fight them there because he’s not strong enough. He finds himself without a reason to live. Although all the descriptions you’ll read about the film will describe the plot of the film as the attempt of a man to rescue a girl from a sex racket gone horribly wrong—a plot that has found itself in a lot of movies throughout history, most importantly Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver”, it’s actually not about that. The plot is barely there, and while going through the film, I found a lot of the parts a bit boring at times, although the editing and the direction ensure that the interest of the audience is not lost even for a moment. The trailer is another misdirection here; it promises the audience a tough as nails revenge thriller, but that is not what the film is.
There is a pivotal scene in the film where he tries to end it all, but then something amazing happens.
For the first time in his life, he feels pain.
And in pain, life finds a way to him. The same pain that he derived pleasure from, the same pain that stood for his detachment from the world comes back to him. It comes to his ear and whispers “Not yet. There’s hope.” It’s this pain that helps him fight his demons. Pain becomes his light. It is in the last moments of his life that he becomes undone by all the damage that had happened to him in the past. He rids himself of all his anchors. He used to be afraid of being without anchors. It turns out when life doesn’t give you anchors, you have to make them yourself. He realises he has to live. And that’s where life begins. With the simple decision that you have to live, no matter what. I had saved these words for another scene in the film, but looking back at it, here’s where it all begins—this is where he realises that he’d been wrong about life all along. Damage can never be permanent. As long as there’s life, there’s hope. You may have made some mistakes and no matter what the cause, there’s still time to rectify them. Even though the people who were affected by that mistake are not there anymore, just consider that they forgave you if you could help another person out of their misery. It’s through action that we live. If someone caused you damage, and you cannot undo it, help someone else undo theirs. What happened in the past is an absolute, you cannot change it, but giving the gift of life to someone else is the closest you can do to undoing the damage the past has caused you. From here on, the film becomes about the coming together of two damaged souls, trying to heal each other of all the damage they’ve sustained in their lives. It’s Bresson’s Pickpocket for the post-modern world. Posing as a dark crime drama, by the end it instead becomes a poem on the only two absolutes in a world without absolutes: life and death. It’s as simple as that. It’s as complicated as that. It’s life. And as long as there’s life, there’s hope. And soon, it starts to show. He starts feeling. There’s a scene where he starts bawling his eyes out for what seems like no apparent reason, and that’s where you realise it’s the first time he has exhibited emotion throughout his arc. There are chinks in his armour. Everything falls apart. But where he expected agony and anarchy, he finds life. The demons he tried to fight have saved him. It is in this moment that he becomes undone from the damage that had occurred in the past. It seems like after roaming for years and years, he has found the Promised Land. A land of peace. A land of hope. A land where he can find the will to go on living.
The poetry of life shows until the last frames of the film, where it’s just the sound of people talking off-screen, while the credits roll. This is where you find the meaning of the film. I tried and failed to pick apart the film inside my head for the whole duration of the film, but it was only during the credits, set to Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant, brilliant score that I had a flash where I realised that I knew something about what this film wanted to talk about. This film is about all those boring moments in the middle, moments that I didn’t think added to the narrative; this film is about where words go when they are being translated from one tongue to another.
The technical details of a film are often discussed throughout the review: this film here stands as an exception. Because of how much the writer of this review wanted to talk about what the film talked about, he couldn’t bother with the technical detail, although they are in a class of their own. So, for the technical detail, let’s first talk about the music. Written masterfully by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, the music of the film brilliantly captures the inherent sadness that fills up the world of the film while at the same time ratcheting up the tension in the action scenes. The camerawork, headed by Tom Townend, a long time friend and collaborator of the director, is as visceral and as poetic as the film requires it to be. Tom Townend is also credited as a script editor, even though he revealed to an interview with Seventh Row Magazine that he didn’t specifically want to be credited for that. Such a complete and a visceral experience requires a lot of freedom and intimate collaboration between the minds involved, and it shows.
I don’t know whether this is an existential film or not, as Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” is considered, or whether or not the comparisons to the 1986 film “Mona Lisa” are justified or not, but all I can speak of is the absolute: “You Were Never Really Here” is one of the best, most poetic life-affirming films in recent memory. It is through the experience of an extreme that the best kind of fiction operates, and to provide a verdict and drive this review into a sunset, “You Were Never Really Here” is one of the best pieces of fiction that our civilisation has produced. Writing this tears me apart, because when you come across something sacred, the immediate reaction is to hide it from the rest of the world. It’s a very human thing. We’re jealous and insecure, tand we tend to be overprotective about the things we love. People always tend to ruin the things one loves. I’m afraid that the reader will not be able to identify with the feelings that the film cultivated in me. Against it is another impulse; one that compels me to tell the world about this experience, because if “You Were Never Really Here” doesn’t make you feel the compulsion to take the nearest person, grab them by the collar and shout about how it made you feel, I don’t know what will.