The confusion of ‘You Were Never Really Here’


Joaquin Phoenix stars in drama/mystery film “You Were Never Really Here.” (Image courtesy of IMBD)

“You Were Never Really Here” is directed by Scottish director Lynne Ramsay and is based on the book by Jonathan Ames. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man named Joe, who has a deeply troubled past but currently takes jobs tracking down missing children. His latest job requires him to find and return a local politician’s daughter, who has become a victim of sex trafficking.

But to say that is what the film is about would be a lie. I’m honestly not entirely sure what exactly happened in this film or what the message was supposed to be, but the actual plot of the film is definitely not at the center of it. For that reason, many viewers may find this to be an exceptionally slow film, even with its short hour and a half run time. You could likely count the number of sequences that actually advance the plot on one hand. The film takes its time in transporting Joe to various locations throughout New York City, lingering on him for minutes as he waits for the train, eyes staring below the tracks. We get unusually long shots of Joe simply walking very slowly. Most sequences solely interrogate who Joe is and search for answers as to why he acts that way.   

The first shot in the film is also the first time we meet Joe, as he seemingly trys  to suffocate himself via a plastic bag. This sets the tone as to what sort of mental state he is in.  He makes several more failed suicide attempts littered throughout the film, intersected with quick flashbacks to probable causes of his apparent PTSD. We see several moments in his life, ranging from his childhood to his special forces days and even to more recent events. No scene is shown for more than one or two seconds, if that, and on a first watch it can be tough to tie each glimpse together. It raises constant questions, among them: Why was he trying to suffocate himself as a kid the same way he is now as an adult? Is it just to tie the present day and the past scenes together? Was he suicidal at an early age?


For some, I can see this being an intriguing advancement of Joe’s character, perhaps even bringing them back to the theater for a second viewing to find all the details. But it could just as easily be an exercise in futility, with the film seemingly refusing to explain its own story.

It all becomes more convoluted by the fact that we mostly experience things through Joe’s eyes, and the film makes clear that he is not a trustworthy narrator. He hears things that aren’t there several times throughout the film and even hallucinates at times. As the story winds its way to a close, the film brings us inside his head as he puts the pieces of the puzzle together. But the film leaves viewers in doubt: are we to trust what this man believes has happened? How much of this is truly happening and how much of it is in his head? Even the film title seems to suggest that this whole situation may just be a construct of Joes decaying mind.

There are a few things I can say for sure. Whether the story makes sense or not, Phoenix puts in a terrific performance. He is asked to convey much, in a film featuring little dialogue and huge emotional swings; he does it all flawlessly. Additionally, Johnny Greenwood, fresh off of his “Phantom Thread” Oscar nomination, conducts another great score that fits in well with the film’s dark tones and overall great sound design.

Since the film is quiet dark, it’s only moments of levity are found in the brief interactions between Joe and his mother. The rest of the film is soaked in anger and depression as we follow Joe, breaching topics like sex trafficking, domestic abuse, child abuse and suicide. Not to mention the several times Joe beats men to death with his trusty ball peen hammer. And the film is not shy about showing it.

Ultimately, the only thing I felt after seeing the film was disorientation. I can easily see how some would label this film a drawn out, incoherent mess that tries to pass as artsy by showing random shots of airport water fountains. Yet at the same time, I can’t stop thinking about all the questions the film raised, and I do want to see if the film can answer them upon a second watch. It is not for everyone and I don’t think it was for me, but if you search for a deep meaning I’m sure it is there. Somewhere.