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'It's a Beautiful Day': Depicting and Exorcising Trauma in Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Written by Simon Ramshaw.

Photo from the article The visual and thematic content of Lynne Ramsay’s thriller You Were Never Really Here is steeped in the traumatic aftermath of violence. The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD-riddled war veteran turned hitman who specialises in the rescue of young girls, in his redemptive quest to save Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), daughter of an Ohio State Senator, from a lifetime of sexual exploitation. Joe has a tortured history that is communicated to us via elliptical flashbacks which frequently draw associations between his traumatic past and violent present. The film presents Joe as battling to suppress these memories as they emerge at inopportune moments, conveying a vigorous internal conflict that never feels truly resolved until the film’s final moments. Joe’s traumatic past has resulted in a number of self-destructive coping strategies that we see him wrestle with constantly and which are mirrored in Nina’s equally bleak character arc. It is through Nina that Joe finds a possible route away from self-destruction, which I will examine in this piece.

Joe’s trauma is traced to three different sources in the film: his childhood, his experience of war and his work for the FBI. We are first privy to Joe’s domestic trauma, caused by a childhood of intimidation and abuse from his faceless father. We see Joe’s mother (Kate Easton in the flashbacks; Judith Anna Roberts in the present) cowering in fear underneath the dinner table as cutlery is thrown to the ground beside her, while his father prowls the floorboards with a ball-pein hammer. In the meantime, a young Joe is seen drowning out his mother’s screams in a closet by placing a polythene garment cover over his face, an act of self-asphyxiation that establishes a disturbing motif carried through into scenes of Joe’s adulthood. The second source of Joe’s trauma is his wartime experience in the Middle East, illustrated through a flashback to an act of kindness turned sour. In this vignette, Joe gives a chocolate bar to a young child in the conflict zone, who is promptly gunned down by another child in a dispute over the confectionary. Finally, in the briefest flashback episode, Ramsay illustrates Joe’s professional trauma as an FBI agent on home soil through the discovery of a freezer full of Asian women’s corpses. Each of these distressing vignettes arises at various points from various stimuli, whether that be in moments of quiet relaxation and reflection when Joe is sitting at home or in a sauna, or in an unexpected episode where Joe encounters a group of young Asian girls who would like their picture taken. The connecting factor between these dips into retrospection is their destructive impact on Joe, who is depicted as trying to cope in spite of them, both through his violent line of work and at home with his ageing mother.

Despite the frustrating synaptic paths Joe is forced down, he does seem to have a system for dealing with these painful moments. These all coalesce in Joe’s most recent profession as a hitman. Joe has a strange modus operandi. He is cautious in his anonymity, maintaining an element of mystery and a wilfully cold emotional distance with his clients and fixers; in one moment, he violently ends his dealings with his current broker, Angel (Frank Pando), when Angel’s son spots Joe entering his house. This is all logical protocol, but his method of execution is with a ball-pein hammer, which is a rather impractical weapon of choice. This is not solely an allusion to other post-millennium thrillers such as Drive (2011, Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn) or Oldboy (2003, Dir: Park Chan-Wook) where the brooding anti-hero wields a claw hammer as an instrument of bloody revenge. Instead this can be seen as Joe using the same blunt design that his father used against him and his mother many years beforehand to save the children and, more specifically, the young girls that he could not save during his stint in the FBI. Thus this weapon is seemingly a reclamation of Joe’s trauma that works to varying degrees of success; although he kills everyone he hits with a hammer, it is more an outlet for his seething rage than an efficient method of murder.

Joe’s present-day life as a hitman is riddled with a variety of disconcerting mental states which are visualised through the camerawork and editing. The first time we meet Joe, we are introduced to him in fragmented pieces; we see a set of arms cleaning a bloodied hammer and disposing of evidence and later, a set of legs coolly walking away from a hard night’s work before cutting to a full-body shot of Joe. Tom Townend’s superlative cinematography utilises point-of-view tracking shots throughout to portray Joe walking from place to place, but the most disorienting of these comes in a very strange moment where the camera movement not only changes direction sharply, seeming to alter its purpose mid-motion. The shot begins tracking from a motel corridor to its lobby, but quickly halts to pan left and bring a police car outside the window into frame. The shot reverses as the camera appears to move backwards, but carries on over Joe’s left shoulder, who then quickly walks left out of the frame, leaving the shot held on the rest of the lobby. This camera move serves to successfully ‘disassociate’ Joe’s body from his sight and thought-process by literally having his body move away from what we were led to believe was his point of view at the start of the shot. This type of contradiction re-emerges in Joe’s later trip to the hardware store, where he asks himself aloud “What are you doing?” while buying duct tape for the job, before going over to a selection of hammers and psychotically grinning when he finds the correct ball-pein hammer he wants. Despite even his own protestations, Joe cannot stop himself from embarking on yet another journey twinning his mental self-destruction and the physical destruction of others. The allure of beating his trauma to death with a hammer is evidently too compelling to resist.

Looking beyond the specific in-the-moment reasons for Joe using a ball-pein hammer, his traumatic experiences are united in that they all involve his inability to prevent children and/or women from being harmed. What Ramsay focuses on in each instance is a brutal aftermath, from a dying child’s twitching foot in the desert wind to a pile of frozen corpses, mouths agape. Joe is always too late, or he was too weak to act in the moment. This is beautifully evoked in the film’s title, as Joe’s primary fear appears to be that he isn’t “really there”, and that whatever action he takes will somehow be meaningless and inert. Joe is shown at multiple points to be a spectral presence, often leaving the frame when vehicles or people pass in front of him. This of course reaches a tragic false climax in the film’s final scene, where we are momentarily led to believe that Joe commits suicide in public, an action subsequently ignored by those around him. Not even the waitress face and clothes spattered with his brains - seems to notice when she hands Joe’s bleeding corpse his food bill.

Joe’s suicidal fantasy is preceded by a dead-end of sorts in both his and Nina’s stories where his perceived ‘weakness’ seems to pass the point of no likely return. When Nina is recaptured by paedophile Governor Williams, Joe goes on an odyssey to find her, discovering a trail of fresh corpses along the way that range from his fixer to his own mother. Envisaging his endgame as the simple act of saving Nina from Williams, Joe follows Williams to his mansion, wipes out his security, and finds a naked Williams with his throat cut. Joe breaks down in tears and rips his shirt off, mumbling “I’m weak, I’m weak, I’m weak” while his father’s voice once again taunts him (“Only fucking pussy little girls slouch” is a common recurring phrase). Although Nina has one level saved herself from any sexual abuse, she has now also gone through the experiences that have most devastated Joe (she has taken another’s life and she has been abused), uniting the pair in their shared trauma and preventing Joe from achieving any straightforward catharsis.

The psychological forces uniting Joe and Nina are made clear from their very first meeting. We are introduced to both characters as they calmly count down from numbers above thirty (Joe starts at forty-three, Nina starts at thirty-two) during quiet moments when both characters are alone with their thoughts. This countdown is also what prompts Joe to save Nina during his underwater hallucination; Joe counts down to the moment where he will drown, but Nina’s own counting distracts him and he makes the decision to save her before he dies. This is a recurring motif that conveys something akin to a psychic connection between the two characters. In terms of their backstories, both Joe and Nina have been exploited, subjugated and abused by powerful men, and Joe has found a dangerous coping mechanism through the destruction of men exactly like his father and Governor Williams’ subordinates. Nina, in her self-defence killing of Williams, has embarked down the same path. Joe panics when he finds Williams’ body, as, yet again, he is too late and hasn’t been able to save Nina from what may be a lifetime of psychological torment. He finds Nina downstairs, vacantly eating dinner while her hands are covered in blood; the straight razor she killed her assailant sitting next to her knife and fork like an extra piece of cutlery.

Despite Nina’s assurance to Joe that “it’s okay”, Joe cannot offer Nina an answer of where they can go next and then lives out his suicidal fantasy, which appears to be a waking dream. It is following this reverie that Nina comforts Joe by telling him “It’s a beautiful day.” He agrees. In this, the final moment of the film, Joe seems to act like a person unburdened by trauma, taking a decadent slurp from his milkshake as Eileen Barton’s jaunty song, ‘If I Knew You Were Coming I’d’ve Baked A Cake’ plays on the soundtrack. Thus the film ends the film on a jarringly upbeat note - one where Joe and Nina have agreed on something positive despite the similar horrors they have encountered along the way. The possibility of redemption and even of future happiness is ambivalently suggested as the film draws to a close.

Although this is hardly indicative of long-lasting happiness for the mismatched pair, it nonetheless affords them a reprieve from their constant misfortunes and the spectre of trauma depicted throughout You Were Never Really Here up to this point. At least briefly, their traumas appear exorcised and their outlook on the present (and possibly the future) is good. Gone is Jonny Greenwood’s nerve-jangling score, which has been powered by off-beat percussion and screeching violins, replaced by a nostalgic, upbeat tune that holds no negative connotations for either character (compare this to the more sinister use of Rosie & The Originals’ ‘Angel Baby’ earlier in the film). Neither Joe nor Nina know where they will go next, but the film’s ending marks a departure from the omnipresent death or psychological torment that has marked almost every prior scene. Its ending provides a pleasant aural contrast to the film’s opening cacophony of urban sounds: a sudden hammer blow, abusive threats, a terrified child counting. Instead, it closes on the comparatively comforting sound of a milkshake being slurped.

This Alternate Take was published on October 24, 2018.

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