You Were Never Really Here was dubbed “the Taxi Driver for the 21st century.” It isn’t, but the comparison is appropriate. Many viewers will leave the auditorium angry – because it’s boring, or dreary, or incoherent: “I can’t believe they compared that to Taxi Driver.” They did not mind that the 1976 film was glacial, dreary, and often surreal. They wouldn’t. Taxi Driver is canonical. Folks my age saw it only after being socialized into admiring it. And The French Connection, and The Conversation, and The Deer Hunter, and so on.
Before my screening, there was an advertisement for Paul Schrader’s First Reformed. Perhaps ironically, a pull-quote from the trailer hailed it, also, as “This generation’s Taxi Driver.” It isn’t, either, although it is directed by Taxi Driver’s screenwriter. More likely, it’s this generation’s First Reformed, like You Were Never Really Here is this generation’s You Were Never Really Here.
There is a trend, at least lately, to treat every film about violent men as though it were the second coming of some earlier film about violent men. We are, for some strange reason, desperate for a new Taxi Driver or Apocalypse Now. An obnoxious trend, to be sure, which hints that far too many of us are incapable of reading past the “Here Are Some Violent Men And That Is Bad” element of such films, both past and present.
The director, Lynne Ramsay, spends what feels like an inordinate amount of time establishing the relationship between Joe, the film’s resident Violent Man, and his mother. “Psycho was on today,” she mumbles as he walks in the door. She can’t sleep, naturally, because she watched it. And the Norman Bates references keep coming, apparently by accident. “It was not scripted,” according to Ramsay, “but we loved it so much that we kept it.” And Psycho may actually be a (somewhat) better referent than Taxi Driver. For those who bothered to watch through the latter three sequels, my suggestion will not seem so peculiar.
The fourth installment, especially, chronicles Norman Bates’ long journey back to “sanity,” or something like it: In the first film, Norman is childlike and innocent – until he really, really isn’t. The fourth film, which intercuts between his abusive childhood and his release from the sanitarium, gives the audience what they probably didn’t want: Now middle-aged and battered, Norman struggles with his murderous urges but seeks help. He is not “cured,” because he probably can’t be. His life will forever be marred by the shrapnel that has been inflicted upon him – and the wounds he has inflicted on others. There is no erasing the past. But he is committed to “being human again,” in spite of his tendencies. We’re all more than the damages that haunt us.
Depending on who you ask, this very subtext retroactively makes the first film more interesting. Hitchcock’s original was an exercise pure dread, inspired less by the Robert Bloch novel upon which it is based than by Roger Corman’s schlock cinema and Henri-Georges Clouzot now-iconic Les Diaboliques. The novel is grimy, and nihilistic: Norman is the scum-of-the-earth, as is Mary “Marion” Crane. It’s pulp-for-pulp’s-sake. The film is no different on that front, but Hitchcock approaches his characters with an empathy uncharacteristic of its source material. This is not because Hitchcock was a great guy but because, honestly, it makes the story an awful lot scarier. As ill-advised as it was to make a follow up to Psycho, the sequels recontextualize the meaning of the first: Psycho is about how some folks secretly aren’t human; the latter films are about how some folks secretly are.
The aforementioned Violent Men subgenre is already thoroughly ingrained in the Film Bro pantheon, but – at least for now – it’s positively exhausted. You Were Never Really Here is not one of those, as I argued in my review, instead picking up on threads from a less-travelled and much more interesting tradition of films about theosis – the way that mercy can revivify you – or something like it. If we’re going to fetishize some filament of our cinematic heritage, why not make it the latter?