In You Were Never Really Here, the New York alleyways are apocalyptic. The city is not “formless and void.” It’s worse. While the early creation accounts of Genesis pit God against the disorganized chaos of a world as yet uncreated, the latter stories of “the flood” and “the Tower of Babel” see Him swinging a hammer at the curse of unmitigated order.
“Formless and void” can meet its match, quite easily, in whatever arrangement suffocates eudaimonia, “human flourishing.” This portrait of New York City is every city, and every Backwood: A factory dressed like a neighborhood, where line-workers travel to and fro, moving parts with a pulse, fulfilling their quota. Joe (Joachin Phoenix) is a line-worker, too. But a unique breed. His day job is to rescue abducted children. When he is hired to find Senator Votto’s kidnapped daughter, the Senator chimes in: “McCleary said you were brutal.”
“I can be,” Joe mumbles.
“I want you to hurt them.”
He kills the right people, and someone certainly has to. He’s not cut out for much else, apparently. A tour of duty and a stint in the FBI have left him largely vacant. What is left of him cares for his mother. His inner monologue is a chorus, but it’s mostly Babel; When something discernible does pass through, it’s also terrible. “You have to do better,” the chorus chimes. More often, he mumbles to himself about woman’s genitalia. “I think You Were Never Really Here is about a ‘tortured masculinity,’” Ramsay told director Maggie Greenwald. He is mechanical, his violence is programming.
So this “tortured masculinity” is a cog in the machinery of the city. It dons a hammer and kills the right people. Marginally, its name is Joe. But it is generally sub-personal, glinting its “humanity” at manageable intervals, mopping up the water from its mother’s outbursts or tearing out a page from an uninteresting book; Suffocating itself, right to the borderline, and pulling back. Suicidal ideation is a running theme throughout the film, as you might expect. How could it not be? By what other means might a captive like Joe escape the clockwork of Babel?
You Were Never Really Here is based on a novella by Jonathan Ames. Perhaps what drew Ramsay to the project was its suppleness. In Ames’s book, Joe rescues Senator Votto’s daughter, Nina. They head to a hotel room, awaiting rendezvous with her father. There is a knock at the door, a group of masked men restrain Joe and whisk Nina away. On the television, he learns that Votto has taken his own life. His boss, McCleary, is not answering his phone. Returning home, Joe finds his mother dead.
The film plays this for everything it’s worth: Downstairs, a federal agent gets the drop on Joe and a brawl ensues. Joe manages to fire a round into him and they talk while he dies. Votto, it turns out, has been “gifting” his daughter to the governor as a kind of “adolescent concubine.” When he tried to opt out, she was kidnapped. Joe can find her at his mansion upstate. As the agent breathes his last, Joe clutches his hand and they sing. Ramsey’s “tortured masculinity” is more like an unstitched masculinity, a Babel turned diaspora. A Garden flooded to be replanted.
The novella continues: Joe marches in to the governor’s mansion and dispatches his servicemen. Creeping up the stairs, he finds him. There is an anti-climax, and he murders him. Nina is gone, having escaped the mansion before Joe arrived. He resolves to find her, and the book ends. This is poignant enough, of course. But Ramsay’s film ties up at least one of Ames’s setups that never quite pays off: “Joe lay in bed in his mother’s house. He thought about committing suicide. Such thinking was like a metronome for him. Always present, always ticking.” As previously mentioned, the film makes no secret of Joe’s suicidal ideations, but for Ames they’re in the foreground. A “tortured masculinity,” Joe might end himself it weren’t for his mother, or something.
Or, he might end himself if it weren’t for the hammer in his fist. He’d make a fine case study for devotees of Viktor Frankl, having carved out a “why” for his existence, however jagged and tenuous. Or he’d make a fine case study for devotees of Freud, and he probably has. He is a “tortured masculinity” with special affinity for a phallus-shaped piece of weaponry, by which he bludgeons men whose actual sex lives may align quite closely with his conscious or unconscious appetites.
Whatever the case, he is kept afloat to some degree insofar as he is able to embody this particular cog in the machinery of the city. If he cannot muster the will to participate in the human community, he can at least become a force of nature – he is at least of Some Use, On Account of His Nascent Brutality. Aside from the anti-climax, it’s never quite paid off in Ames, which is disappointing; Ramsay’s entire film is the punchline Ames left up in the air.
This time, Joe arrives at the governor’s mansion. He dispatches the servicemen, but we never see it. As before, she cuts around the carnage we came for. He climbs the stairs and enters the governor’s bedroom. It’s too late to bludgeon him to death, however, because the governor is no more, his throat slashed. Joe comes unglued. Not only has he not rescued Nina, there is no beast to slay, no comeuppance to deliver. Joe is extraneous.
He does find Nina, unlike the novella. She hasn’t left the mansion. In the middle of his meltdown, Joe finds her sitting at the dining room table, a bloody straight razor at her side. They leave.
I come from a tradition characterized by erratic revivalists who felt you couldn’t “see the light” until you’d seen the deep dark in yourself. You couldn’t trade in your sorrows and fears until you’d been mortified at your own reflection – till those things by which you “justified yourself” became irrelevant, as it were. And with Nina, Joe is exactly that. His lycanthropic brand of justice has done nothing to protect her. He is an angel of death that she did not need; she killed her own bloody pharaoh. Unlike the novella, this Nina denies Joe even the satisfaction of punishing the bastard who kidnapped her. He’s arrived and the governor is dead: He is Joe, of No Particular Use to The Girl He Has Set Out to Rescue. His deepest, or loudest, desires – to be a good cog in the bad machine – cannot find cover in the guise of “punishing evildoers.” He cannot wrap himself up in murdering men with similar proclivities anymore, or at least not tonight. He is irrelevant. And irrelevant folks make bad line-workers in the factory at Babel.
So Joe thinks about killing himself, until he doesn’t, because “it’s a beautiful day.” Once his Usefulness is kneecapped, the brush, perhaps, is cleared away and he can finally be Joe, a Human Person, again, or for the first time; something more – or, less – than a “tortured masculinity” to be ogled by films writers and fetishized by young men donning Pulp Fiction apparel. That’s something.