“They said you were brutal,” State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) says to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). Sorting through photos of the kidnapped girl between his plumb-sized fingers, Joe replies matter of factly, hardly looking at his new client: “I can be.” So begins You Were Never Really Here, and so begins the next mission for the former FBI agent and combat man. Joe lumbers, his mammoth, muscular body, not unlike his hammer—which he wields like Thor does his—juxtaposed with his unkempt hair and his disinclination to enunciate. It’s as if Joe has no connection to his body anymore: Haunted by violence and trauma, he barely sees himself as whole, and director Lynne Ramsay abstains from shooting her Angel of Death in full as well. Though Joe’s life has taken on a routine quality, he wishes to get out of his head so desperately he steps outside of his body and time itself.
Jonny Greenwood’s humming score buoys most of You Were Never Really Here, his obsessive guitar strums and percussive beats augmenting Joe’s restlessness. The sounds in Joe’s head are random thumps, are the sounds of a plastic bag stretching over his head, eyes and mouth, of the train passing by as he contemplates letting his body fall onto the tracks. He could easily picture that kind of self-destruction, giving him a little relief from the agonizing dullness of every day. He takes care of his ailing mother, who reminds him of the past he once had and, without her own awareness, of the trauma he inflicted on him. Images in Joe’s head pop up discontinuously, thuddingly and overwhelmingly.
You Were Never Really Here is not quite that which is advertised —the trailer has a visceral quality, to be sure, but Ramsay’s film isn’t exactly the revenge-thriller its ad campaign suggests, or the Scorsese-ish movie several people have described it as. It’s much quieter, nearly serene, which makes its bouts of violence and pops of sound all the more shocking. Joe’s job as a hired hammer is as soul crushing as if it it were an office job, and then some. The violence he sees and inflicts shapes him, plagues his every waking thought. It occupies his dreams, too.
Ramsay implies that Joe specializes in rescuing young women from sex traffic rings; he’s asked, for his next mission, to find a politician’s daughter. When Joe is in action, though, is when he seems to disassociate entirely. Joe inevitably finds the headquarters of the sex traffic ring, but Ramsay uses security footage from inside and outside of the brownstone to detail Joe’s actions. In stark black and white, looking down on each room from a corner, Ramsay makes this aesthetic choice not just for coverage, but as a suggestion of how much of an out-of-body experience this is for Joe. Over the footage, we hear Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” in the diegesis of the film. It blips, repeats, loops lines, eschewing linearity or even a consistency of beat.
“I love you, I do,” Rosie croons. “I can hardly stand on my own two feet.”
Ramsay’s use of diegetic music gets her a few steps away from chopping and screwing, a term which describes a form of remixing when two copies of the same record are played at different beats, each copy bleeding back and forth into one another. The “because” in “because I love you” repeats twice, like a skip in a record, expressing a sentiment of near disbelief and needed reaffirmation. Rather than relying on an “ironic” take, which points out the song’s obvious difference in tone between lyrics and on-screen action, Ramsay conjures up a swirling, spiral effect. When Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), Votto’s daughter, wakes up, counting in her head, “Angel Baby” plays in a fuzzy haze.
On their way out, with Nina over Joe’s back, Joyce Heath’s “I Wouldn’t Dream of It” swings back and forth through the corridors, and we hear Heath sing, “Around the wonderful love I found,” right before the bash of hammer against one of the guard’s skulls. It becomes clearer that Ramsay might be, in essence, crafting a love story between people who need each other, who have faced such trauma that they’ve lost their abilities to make sense of a cruel world.
Other songs are featured in the film, which either give the film its fever dream atmosphere or ground it in Joe’s suicidal thoughts. Charlene’s ballad “I’ve Never Been to Me” is sung as Joe lays on the floor gripping the hand of a henchman, both bloodied and painted in sweat, singing it like it’s the culmination of Joe’s suicidal ideation.
“Angel Baby,” too, returns towards the end of the film, playing like Nina’s theme, echoing through the wide hallways of a mansion, spectre-like. Though the songs play within the diegesis of the film, they continually illustrate the complicated relationship that Joe has with his own physicality—with his own bodily being. Rarely do these pop songs play to solidify his presence as a “normal” person, walking from place to place or listening to something in the car, nothing sinister in his mind. They’re like a desired gateway out of this world and out of his shell.
The bulk of You Were Never Really Here is burdened with Joe’s inability to reconcile his reality with the sounds and images that haunt him: abuse, death, violence. By the end of the film, the only person he has left in his life is Nina, with a short dirty blonde bob, someone presumably just wounded. But he’s here in his body now. At the diner at the end of the film, Nina looks at him, blue ribbon around her neck, and says, “Let’s go. It’s a beautiful day.” Eileen Barton and the New Yorkers’ chipper “If I Knew You Were Comin’ (I’d ’ve Baked a Cake),” playing in the diner, grows louder, now non-diegetic, and Joe finishes his milkshake. There’s a little hope in this world, I suppose. Here, especially for the angels with broken wings.