You Were Never Really Here makes the case for more filmmaker diversity in Hollywood. As you know, I’m a champion for onscreen representation, but this goes beyond the need to see yourself reflected in films. Lynne Ramsay’s film portrays a complex male character that has violence, sensitivity, empathy, and trauma. In a cultural landscape of toxic masculinity, it takes a female filmmaker to show us a complicated, fragile, and emotional leading man.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a hired gun who tracks down missing girls and brutally kills their captors. Physically, he is incredibly strong and unflinching. Emotionally, he is sensitive and compassionate — lovingly caring for his elderly mother and dedicating himself to saving victims of human trafficking. Don’t misunderstand me though, he is frightening; a hulking beast with a ball pein hammer and a desire to punish. Joe enters an establishment, removes any threats with said hammer, and returns the girls to their families. Usually. When a senator hires him to find his daughter, Joe finds himself tangled in a twisted game amongst powerful men. As Joe entangles himself deeper in the hunt for the girl, his own trauma begins to show at the cracks of his barely stable psyche. Joe’s preferred acts of violence and coping mechanisms begin to fit into a pattern originating in his own childhood sex abuse.
Joe complicates the concepts of masculinity and victimhood within the Hollywood model. He doesn’t fit into any easy-to-define boxes but exists as both brutal villain and merciful hero. Ramsay creates a world that makes it hard to judge the onscreen characters in simple terms of right and wrong. She depicts characters through fragmentary close-ups of faces and body parts that force the viewer to really work to understand the full picture of their lives. Rather than objectifying, these alienated extremities ultimately work to bring the viewer closer emotionally to the characters — mainly Joe. What starts as a struggle to piece together his story becomes an intimate connection with his experiences through a series of close-ups. When Joe is asked by a group of smiling girls on the street to take their picture, we don’t immediately understand why he sees them with their mouths open and tears welling in their eyes, when moments before they were giggling and sipping boba tea. Only later do we realize he couldn’t look at the happy friends without equating them to haunting memories of a van full of dead trafficked girls.
Ramsay’s depiction of male trauma brings sensitivity and complexity to an element of masculinity rarely highlighted in films, and certainly not in mainstream movies. I can’t help but imagine the diverse and compelling stories we’re missing out on when filmmaker viewpoints are limited to mostly white men. What could have easily been just another tired portrayal of a white hitman becomes something powerful and new in Ramsay’s hands.You Were Never Really Here is proof that everyone benefits from more diverse voices in filmmaking — voices that expand depictions of all characters, even otherwise tired depictions of violent white men.