You Were Never Really Here, an excercise in style that keeps you at a distance

The story is grim; traumatized veteran Joe, living with his elderly mom, works as a hitman in the private sector, mostly to rescue young girls from sex slavery, with a hammer.

But it is style and not the story that makes it uncomfortable to watch. The camera’s view is close to Joe, but not close in a personal way, you don’t get to know him. I wanted the camera to move further away, to give me a break. It was unpleasant to be at this strange distance, where it is hard to get a sense of clarity, a sense of what is going on. The camera keeps following Joe and you don’t know what is reliable. Is he a madman? What is real? Are the flashbacks real? Thoughts? Delusions?

When the movie starts to show images through security camera’s, you finally know this is at least real. A break from Joe. And an aesthetically nice one.

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Joe saves a girl Nina. After this, the movie makes an unexpected turn, and focuses more on events, and less on Joe. It is easier to watch.

The trailer of You Were Never Really Here makes it look like an action thriller, with beautiful aesthetics. It is not that. It is a character study, but one that is not easy to watch. It reminded me of Aristotle, who says in the Poetics that mimesis in art can depict awful events or images that would normally be painful for us to see, and make them enjoyable. This is not (at least not per se!) a sign of a questionable moral, but a sign of understanding: contemplating about how or why things are or what sort of person someone is, gives us pleasure. Maybe the director doesn’t want to give us the pleasure of understanding Joe, because can one really understand trauma?

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Maybe if you recognize it. And this is the strong element of the second part of the movie. When you are traumatized, a part of you stays there, as a frozen witness, cut off from the world around you. Joe, in that muscular, worn down ageing body, is also still a boy. Nina, that young girl with the innocent face, is also not a girl. Joe and Nina are alike, parts of them floating, a drift, not really here.

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‘Close your eyes,’ he says to the girl.
She keeps looking.
‘Joe!’ she calls out to him.
With few words, you know they have a connection, that they are equals.

They can only start in the here and now.

‘It is a beautiful day.’

In You Were Never Really Here style does the work. And the performances of Joaquin Phoenix and Ekatarina Samsonov. And it needs your own after thoughts, because it does keep you at a distance.

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