*This contains some spoilers about the film You Were Never Really Here
“That was an incredible movie but I don’t know if I can watch it again” was my immediate response as the final credits rolled for Lynne Ramsay’s film, You Were Never Really Here.
I didn’t know much about the film before going into it, other than this brief description I read from Rotten Tomatoes:
“A traumatized veteran, unafraid of violence, tracks down missing girls for a living. When a job spins out of control, Joe’s nightmares overtake him as a conspiracy is uncovered leading to what may be his death trip or his awakening.”
As I sat through the film, I was continually amazed at Phoenix’s performance and the cinematography and how they stunningly portrayed the lead character, Joe, and the effects of unresolved trauma and PTSD.
Trauma and PTSD can result in sudden flashbacks and memories that not only hijack your mind but also your body. These are not like typical memories with a beginning, middle, and end; like when you remember your first kiss or your trip to the grocery store this week. In those memories there is a clear beginning of the story, middle of the story, and end of the story that your mind constructs. With traumatic flashbacks, your memories flood your brain and hijack your body. It is like the thing from your past is now your present.
Ramsay demonstrated this beautifully and disturbingly in her film. We do not see a beginning, middle, and end explaining that Joe suffered abuse as a child. Rather, we see sporadic flashbacks as he’s going about his day that allow us to piece this together. We do not see the whole picture, only fragments. With trauma, this is often the case.
In a way, the film explains trauma and its effects not through a direct lesson but rather experiential learning. We are able to enter, in a small way, into Joe’s tortured and muddled brain, and get a glimpse of what living with PTSD is like by getting inside Joe’s head.
Not only does the film deal with Joe’s PTSD but also with the trauma engulfing the girl he is hired to rescue, Nina. Nina is the daughter of a senator who runs away and who the senator believes trapped in an underage prostitution ring. As Joe hunts down the people who have taken her, and looks for Nina, his memories only become stronger and intrude into his present day, making it hard to distinguish between reality and insanity.
Joe finds Nina and rescues her from a child trafficking house. Later on, we find that she is caught up in a larger scheme where politicians pay for underage girls and even trade them among one another. In various scenes we hear Nina counting down from 40 to herself, a possible dissociative defense mechanism so that she does not have to engage with the brutal and evil harm that is being done to her. As she does this, a similar defense that we see Joe employed and employs, we recognize that in those moments they aren’t really there but also, because of their trauma, are not really able to be there in the present either.
We also see a beautiful depiction of Joe coming outside of his own pain to save Nina. In his despair, at the point of almost ending his life, he sees the image of Nina before him, lost and floating. In that moment, rather than sinking into his own personal hell, he gasps for life, recognizing he must save her and in order to do that, must come out of himself and his own hell.
The movie ends on a confusing note where we see these two individuals, a man and a girl who fought to survive hellish pain and abuse, sitting at a diner. Both seem so far away yet also able to bring one another back into reality. What happens next, however, is left to the imagination.
I thought the film was brilliantly disturbing and demonstrated the impact of trauma on a person; how past pain impacts the present. Ramsay’s style is unique and tells the story not just through dialogue and plot but through experience. I recommend watching this film but you may only be able to watch it once because of how emotionally and psychologically intense it is.