Art house cinema. The mere mention of this genre will spark endless discussions from its profound role in film to its disassociation in the collective consciousness of movie goers. But what is art house? For me what makes a movie “art house” is its unwavering devotion to its particular vision. This is why many art house films of today strive in the indie scene, as they are not bound by huge studio return on investments.
Enter indie director Lynne Ramsay’s retelling of the novella of the same name, You Were Never Really Here. In classic art house fashion, the reception to You Were Never Really Here has divided many viewers. My goal here is to contextualize the movie in hopes of getting someone off that perpetual fence.
You Were Never Really Here is about a hired gun named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) traumatized an abusive childhood and traumatized by war. We follow him through his daily pain as his most recent job goes horribly wrong. In the end Joe eventually completes the job. And that’s pretty much the entire plot summarized. The plot is certainly weak, but that’s ok here. Where you really find the “stuff” and “what happens” is in between the lines. It is found in its sub texts.
As hinted at before, You Were Never Really Here is first and foremost an unapologetic art house film. That is to say that it uses the language of cinema (framing, sound and pictures) to convey its story. Both the movie and art house in general give up spoken words and explicit directions as means to communicate their critical ideas. Instead, Lynne Ramsay allows audiences to decipher their own meaning from the images she puts front and center.
So in the context of an art house piece you can see the experimental fun that went into making You Were Never Really Here. Cuts of flashbacks are sprinkled throughout the film from the point of view of Joe. The flashbacks interchange from memories of his father physically abusing a young Joe and his mother to his grizzly days as an FBI agent.
These flashbacks set up and introduce the now distraught Joe. You get a sense that Joe does not care for his own life and later discern that he is in fact suicidal. But it’s in the way that Lynne Ramsay depicts this mental ailment that stood out to me.
One scene has Joe laying in a bed as he dangles a switchblade knife over his gapping mouth. Slowly he enters the knife into his mouth, but any further action is stopped by the wailings of his elderly mother. The scene carries itself in a light tone and even becomes comical when his mother interjects. Joe is suicidal but understands that life is also precious.
Ramsay furthers this contradiction of life and death through Joe’s line of work. Despite his suicidal tendencies, Joe searches and rescues children that have gone missing. His heart and compassion for children directly contradicts his emotional state of being.
The question in film always comes up as to “how does one translate a mental illness unto film?” For me this inner and contradicting battle between nourishing life and flirting with death Joe undergoes gives viewers a good glimpse as to how it feels to live with mental instability.
Aesthetically this is how You Were Never Really Here functions. At first, the flashbacks seem out of order and disconnected with no clear purpose. But after the credits roll, and you allow yourself to digest the scenes, you’re able to slowly piece together meaning. After a day or two, ask yourself ‘how I feel?’ What train of thought did you follow when you saw Joe haphazardly smile or when he blew his brains out and doesn’t die?
This is art house in a nut shell; it’s art for the sake of art. An audience that demands explanation and reasoning will surly be disappointed. Its plot isn’t too complex nor does it make too much logical sense at times (Joaquin Phoenix definitely pushes the film to illogical proportions with his great performance). You Were Never Really Here is a difficult watch for its seemingly disconnected scenes, but rewards those minds that linger on it long after its finish.