You Were Never Really Here Explores Trauma and the Painful Ties It Binds

This post is a part of our New Voices Section.

Written by Garrett Eberhardt.

You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a veteran turned contract investigator/killer with a specialty in the tracking of missing girls. After taking a job involving Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the troublesome daughter of a New York State Senator, Joe becomes embroiled in a deep conspiracy that leaves him fighting shadowy figures while simultaneously fighting the shadows of his past.

While the violence present in You Were Never Really Here has been the subject of much focus and debate, at its core, the film is about the effect of trauma, traumatic childhoods in particular. Interspersed within the main thread of the film are flashbacks of the trauma Joe suffered as the child of an abusive household, shown through flashbacks. The most obvious carryover presented to the audience is the use of a hammer by Joe’s father to assault his wife, portrayed in the present day by Judith Roberts in a sweet and relatable performance, and young son. In his capacity as a contract killer, Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. This sort of symmetry between the experiences of the past and the characters current behavior drive what is presented onscreen. The trauma of his upbringing is also what drives Joe toward Nina, pushing him to continue his pursuit of her and her kidnappers. In her traumatic experiences, Joe sees his younger self and empathizes, becoming determined to deliver her from a fate that mirrors his own.

The violence displayed in the film by its noted director Lynne Ramsey often occurs out of frame of the cameras, with viewers expected to infer what has occurred either through their own imagination or by reading the visual cues presented to them in the following shot. This depiction of the violence within the film is purposeful, as it fits within the film’s theme of examination the effects of trauma and pain on its subjects. Viewers are presented with the aftermath of the violence acts and how the characters react to the incidents, whether it’s the death or kidnapping of an immediate family member, the discovery of the death of a friend, or happening upon a bloody murder scene. In each of these instances, we’re left to see how these discoveries make those who see them feel, what it reveals about their inner selves and what it makes them realize about the others surrounding them. Ramsey also uses the past violent trauma in the form of PTSD flashback scenes suffered by Joe. That Joe’s past is only shown on screen in sporadic, short bursts instead of prolonged scenes was an innovative, genius move from the director, presenting them as a driver for his current behavior, always bubbling underneath the surface; a lingering presence in Joe’s subconscious.

You Were Never Really Here is impeccably shot by noted director Lynne Ramsey. The camera work and cinematography in the film are extremely well done and 2018’s best as of the time of this writing. The film is filled with a multitude of different techniques including some great establishing shots, and use of camera zoom. Ramsey’s use of light, color, and reflection, are at the forefront throughout, providing a smorgasbord of memorable shots. Three shots that stood out for me in particular was a scene involving Joe decompressing in a dark, pitch black sauna with only a blue hue of light breaking piercing through and highlighting the characters present on screen. A second standout follows Joe’s initial rescue of Nina with the young girl staring at the rain droplets on the passenger side window of the car Joe has whisked her into, while the storefront lights and neon signs peer back at her, reflecting on her inquisitive face. Perhaps the most poignantly beautiful shot achieved through Ramsey and director of photography Thomas Townend’s technical brilliance was that of Joe’s water burial of his mother and attempted suicide following her murder by his pursuers and Nina’s captors. The shot of Joe holding his mother’s body wrapped in tarp, the pockets of his ill-fitting disheveled suit stuffed with rocks intended to weigh him down, as he and his mother are spotlighted by sunlight peering through the dark waters was hauntingly mesmerizing as the sadness of the scene was synergized with the gorgeousness of the photography. Ramsey also manages to film something that serves as a love letter to the gritty yet attractive concrete jungle and lights of New York City that invokes the attractive grime of 2017’s Good Time from the Safdie brothers. Ramsey’s portrayal of the city, its density, and pulsating energy, life, and sleeplessness works in tandem with the excellent cinematography to create an engrossing depiction of the Big Apple that puts its uniqueness and vibrancy on full display.

You Were Never Really Here is the latest entry in the “highly trained assassin embarks on a vigilante mission to save a young girl” genre but subverts the standard fare present in this type of film by diving deeper in the study of its characters, not just the assassin, but the person whom they seek to protect. The mission is not the sole focus of the film’s plot, but also the why of how our main characters arrived at this point. What drove them here? What is the aftermath of not only their past experiences, but the decisions they’re making now? This is even displayed in the depiction of violence where we see less of the acts themselves and more of what the fallout of these violent acts entails. The film is visually stunning, displaying a technical prowess from director Lynne Ramsey in addition to her deft handling of the film’s story. You Were Never Really Here is one of the year’s best films and a must see not just as a thriller, but also as a character study.


Garrett Eberhardt is the Founder of CinemaBabel, a website centered on film critique and analysis. He also serves as a regular guest host on the film analysis podcast Movies That Matter hosted by Nicole Funari and Stacy Moore. You can also follow CinemaBabel on Facebook and Instagram at CinemaBabel and on Twitter @thecinemababel. Garrett currently resides in Washington, D.C.

Subscribe to our newsletter


Maltin tee on TeePublic


Maltin on Movies podcast


Past podcasts


Maltin On Movies Patreon


Leonard Maltin appearances and booking


July 2024