“You Were Never Really Here” is difficult to watch. No doubt. I don’t want to “explain” the movie to anyone. Doesn’t seem productive or even possible with a film like this. But I do want to offer one particular way of watching/experiencing it.
Joe is a guy who is struggling. The only language he knows for navigating the world is violence. It’s a world in which he feels isolated, and it’s not totally clear why. But on some level, I think it’s because he knows that he’s broken somehow. That he doesn’t know how to move throughout the world without hurting people and destroying things. And he knows that’s wrong. Terribly wrong. But he feels unable to change his own nature. But he knows he’s capable of love (see: mother) and he wants to do “good” in the world. But he doesn’t really understand what that means. He wants to, but he doesn’t trust himself to be able to work that out for himself, given his own history and self-doubt. I think that’s why he’s not exactly a vigilante.
Joe doesn’t look at the world, see an injustice, and fight against it. Instead, he’s worked out a way for someone else to recognize those decisions for him. (see: saving the girl) That’s why his handler has to be able to frame his “jobs” as in terms of justice or protecting someone. I think he’s desperate to do something decent, but has to put his trust in someone else to set him on task. He’s desperate in his love for his mother. He’s kind. He’s empathetic. But only in a very safe place with someone he trusts. But he’s also isolated from her, I think, because he’s trying to protect her from what he fears he really is. Not that he’s going to harm her, but that his very nature, and his own impact on the world, will somehow hurt her. That’s why he’s so secretive about meeting with his handler.
And of course, those fears are realized. Joe lost the person he trusted the most. And the other person he trusted sold him out. I don’t think he enjoys the killing and he’s not filled with rage. He just desperately wants to love (as a verb) and do good. But he fears that he can’t escape his nature as a destructive force. He feels trapped. But not trapped between a pair of decisions. Caught in the way that the final girl is caught. Largely beyond his control, and the only way to deal with it is by embracing that “nature” of himself he so desperately wants NOT to be.
I think the point of the movie is that there IS no resolution. More to the point, for Joe, there is no POSSIBLE resolution. But even within the nihilism of that world, he’s still trying. Even though there’s no possible way for him to resolve it. So the resolution, I think, is in his decision to keep trying. … I should also say that I’m not a violent person. But I can deeply identify with him as a character. And I suspect that there are lots of other people out there who, if they were to watch this movie, would, too.
In my particular case, the part of my “nature” that I can’t seem to escape as a mode of being, as a mode of destruction, as a mode of isolation, is depression. That’s my personal struggle, and I can only speak to its nature within my own experience. I DON’T think this a movie about depression. Or child exploitation. Or really, even about violence. Of course it IS about all of those things, but not centrally. Those are each just particular instances for a much more fundamental quandary: How to move through the world when you feel like the only thing you actually know (or suspect) is somehow a part of your nature that you can’t escape. And then to know it will continue to work against you. What are you supposed to do?
Joe just keeps going, even though he’s accepted that it can’t possibly work out. In the face of desperation without hope, what do you do? Keep trying. I think the movie is one of the most insightful pieces of art I’ve ever encountered about the paradox of how to have hope without hope, especially when you love (or at least want to love) the world more than you love yourself.
I watched this movie a couple of months ago; it’s been sticking to my ribs ever since. This is the first time I’ve actually written about it. I didn’t expect this much material. My sincerest apologies for working this out for myself here in this review. If nothing else, maybe I’ve offered an insight into why certain people have felt a resonance with a film that, on its surface, feels violent, nihilist, and opaque.
(If you want to see more of my reviews, you can check them out over on my Letterboxd profile.)