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A Deconstructive Explanation of the Movie You Were Never Really Here
A Deconstructive Explanation of the Movie You Were Never Really Here - or how I realized less is always way way more when it comes to movies.
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A Deconstructive Explanation of the Movie You Were Never Really Here

Woooaaaahhhh. I literally just finished watching the movie You Were Never Really Here and I have to say, this movie jack-knifed my truck. Just utterly and completely ruined me. In an amazing way. Like über fantastic sort of a way. But WOW. The quiet reverie of its intense violence and the justification of said violence? Just perfection from beginning to end. And it’s fairly funny, because I just eviscerated Joaquin Phoenix for his quiet emasculation of Jesus in the movie Mary Magdalene. But that same quiet method is utterly mind blowing when associated with a psychopath hitman. So why don’t we away on a deconstructive explanation of the movie You Were Never Really Here, shall we?

Obviously this movie isn’t going to be for everyone. And as a trigger warning, it mainly deals with underage sex trafficking. So, it’s a fairly unpleasant topic from beginning to end. But I’ve never seen a better moral justification for the violence contained within. So there’s that. Hahahah. Here, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, maybe you should check out this trailer first before we go any further:

Please though, don’t watch this trailer and think… “Ah, a standard dad revenge flick,” or something. That is not what we have here. This is a deep deep dive into the psychosis of a hitman hell-bent on punishing sex traffickers. But it is also a painful look into his own neuroses as well. And Holy Moses on a Segway is this movie dark. I mean, Joe’s favorite weapon for going after horrible people? A ball-peen hammer for the love of all that’s good and holy. If I were to compare the feel of this movie with another, I would probably say that it’s got more in common with Se7en than not. So, that should tell you what we are dealing with here. So with that said, if you have not seen the movie yet, you really need to leave now. Ok? Because from here on out be all kinds of movie spoilers. Need a way to watch it? I got you covered: NetflixAmazon, Google. I just wish I had seen it in the theater. But alas, it didn’t hit my radar until Shelby mentioned it the other day. (THANKS SHELBY! I should give out THiNC. Coins or something. Points or something. The other day, I seriously considered buying a stack of THiNC. shirts to hand out, but are you kidding me?!? I can’t afford that. Do you think I actually make money on this site!?? And have I mentioned lately I work at an NGO during my real day job? hahah. Just the weekly email newsletter costs me a fortune! You guys are about as high maintenance as they come!)

From Here On Out Be Spoiler Dragons

The movies cinematography could best be described as sedative-bokeh. Not exactly sure what that means myself. But feels like the perfect description. But I think the look of the film is intentional – we are seeing the world through Joe’s eyes. And he is in perpetuative downer drug fugue, and mainly to cover a PTSD past of some sort. We never really see what his past really was, but we know that he suffers from it. Not just his previous career, but also his family life as a boy. All of it culminated in a highly tuned marination of awfulness in order to craft his psychopathic tendencies. The only thing I can say? Thank God he willingly points himself at the bad guys.

I think I’ve leapt ahead again, haven’t I? Sorry about that.

Quick You Were Never Really Here Movie Walkthrough

As the movie opens, we see the last few details of his previous job. We see his soon to be familiar hammer. We see blood. A necklace with the monogram of Sandy. And we hear him tell someone on a payphone (really, could you find a payphone if you wanted to these days?) that it’s done. So, we’ve just missed his last job. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? Coming in cold, it looks like he’s all bad, what with the necklace. But then we see him with his mother, and the care with which he delouses her refrigerator of spoiled food, and we start to get a different picture of what is going on.

We learn that Joe is careful. He is methodical. And he is all manner of tormented. He fixates on dying. Suffocating. Stabbing himself. Have I yet mentioned that our man is tormented? Oh, yes, I have. Well, he’s tormented. And even before we witness his first full job, we learn that he worked with ICE, or some border patrol unit, that was responsible for handling smuggling, and maybe human trafficking? And we see him opening a storage unit filled with dozens of dead children. So yeah, his memories are chock full of insanity no mere mortal should be forced to witness.

His handler says that the next job will be a big one for them. $50,000. It’s the missing daughter of Senator John McCleary. McCleary’s wife had committed suicide in the last few years, and Nina had taken to running away regularly. But this time, she hadn’t come back. And through an anonymous tip, they were aware of a place where she might be being pimped out. So Joe goes and gets her back. Doing so by casing the house and getting a runner to let him in. And he violently kills everyone in the house. Have I yet mentioned that his favorite weapon is a ball-peen hammer? I have? Oh, well, it bears repeating. Trust me.

But when Joe goes to the meet location to give Nina back to her father, he doesn’t show up. But then Nina sees on the news that her father has committed suicide by jumping off of a hotel. Moments later, the head of the hotel is there at the door, of which, Joe manages to catch most of his brains on his face when the person behind him shoots him. And with that, two security personnel come in. One takes Nina, and the other, who was about to kill Joe, ends up dying by letting his guard down even momentarily.

Hurt, Joe wonders how he was found. And eventually figures out that they had been tracked from a tracking beacon in his tooth. So, from that we know that, holy cow, Joe must have been deep in the world of espionage or secret services? Is that a standard operating procedure for any of our armed forces? Or CIA? No idea. Some clandestine something or other. Or, could it be Joe hallucinating? Maybe. We can talk about that in a bit.

So, Joe starts walking the cat back, trying to find out what is going on. He heads back to his handler. Dead. His previous cut out that he used for communicating. Dead. McCleary dead. Mother dead. And when he learned that his mother was dead, he snuck in through an upstairs window, and ends up getting the jump on two men in his kitchen. He kills one immediately, and the second one he shoots in the gut.

The man crawling on the floor says, “I don’t want it out.” And then, “There is always crying.” When Joe begins to question him, he learns from the injured man that Governor Williams liked Nina, she was his favorite. That Williams trades them. And in a wild moment, Joe lays on the ground next to him as they sing the song on the radio. And then they hold hands as the man dies. For such a violent movie, it was an oddly (disturbingly) touching moment. (The song they sang? Was “I’ve Never Been To Me”, by Charlene? Which, I’ve never heard of before. But I dig the lyrics, that is for sure.)

Right, well, we have two dead guys in Joe’s house, along with a dead mother. And the visions and flashbacks are lighting up Joe’s cerebral cortex like a forth of July pyrotechnic display. Not really knowing where this downward spiral will end, and with his mother dead, he puts on his best suit and heads out into the forest to a lake. In a flashback eerily similar to the Mary Magdelene movie baptismal scenes, Joe adds rocks to his mother’s body and lowers her to the bottom of the lake. And as he heads down with her, we realize that Joe is committing suicide. He has to be. It’s this fixation with death that has chased him this entire movie that has now finally caught him.

But then he hears Nina counting. When he first saved her, she was counting slowly backwards from 40 to make reality go away. A coping technique. A survivor’s technique to push back the madness that was so close to her. And there, at the bottom of the lake, Joe changes his mind. He pulls the rocks out of his pockets, and he swims towards the surface. And I remember thinking… oh, I would hate to be Governor Williams at this point. Because we know that Joe is going to kill Williams in the worst, most violent way imaginable. Probably in a way that includes a number of well placed ball-peen hammer strikes.

The Ending of the Movie You Were Never Really Here Explained

This movie isn’t really too confusing overall, for those of you who actually paid attention, and were patient. The movie revealed its secrets in due time… generally well enough. But the ending? That got dicey. I literally had to avoid yelling at the screen, WAIT WHAT, as it unraveled. Actually, there were two different times I literally stopped the movie, rewound, tried to figure out what I had missed, stopped it again, and just stared at the ceiling. But let’s walk through the ending together, and see if we can figure it out together.

Sopping wet from his baptism, and resurrection, Joe trudged his way back to his car… and onward towards the Governor’s mansion. But as he maneuvered into the estate, and onward, and into the first building, he started finding security members dead and splayed across the floor like spent wrappers. He was very confused. The further in he went, the more dead people he would find.

Until ultimately? There was the governor, throat slit, bled out across the house floor.

Worse? There was no Nina to be found. This is what Joe had Lazarus’d for? He had had a destiny with death, but now someone was toying with him and taunting him. And for what? But then he found Nina, at the dining room table, calmly eating dinner. And there, on the table? A wickedly scary looking straight razor that was covered in blood. So there was answer number one to the biggest question of the ending… which was, who killed the governor and his security detail. It was Nina. She had gotten her own revenge. Revenge for the sins propagated against her young body. Revenge for the murder of her father. And let’s be clear, John McCleary was thrown off of that hotel building, he didn’t jump.

And the second big question happened just after this scene. Nina and Joe went to a local diner, unsure of what to do now. Both were feeling the other out, when Nina said she had to use the bathroom. And while she’s away, Joe pulls out a revolver, and blows his own brains out. But, strangely? No one in the diner looks his way. No one flinches with the gun shot. What just happened?

Well, Joe didn’t actually kill himself. It was just another of his suicidal fantasies that he had been having throughout the entire movie. But this time, at his whit’s end, unsure of what to do with this child, unsure of what to do with his own life now… his mind slipped into the most fatal of endings. But Nina, would have none of it… “Joe, come on, let’s go. It’s a beautiful day outside.” And when Joe takes his head off the table long enough to realize that, in fact it is a beautiful day, he turns and repeats, “It is a beautiful day.”

Well, the ending is pretty open. But it seems to me to be saying, look these are two very very broken people. Both of them have experienced some of the worst things imaginable. They have seen death. They’ve caused death. They’ve seen the weakest of these be abused, squandered, and cased aside. And yet, here they stand. The future is theirs to make. Their future is going to be what the two of them make of it. Do they become a sequel to Luc Besson’s amazing movie, Leon: The Professional? with both of them on the hunt for child molesters the world over? Two ball-peen hammers leveling the playing field? Or maybe they just find a farm in Nebraska to retire to? Who knows.

But let’s be clear, Joe lost his mother, but gained a daughter. Joe’s demons of his past assumed failures were exorcised by his intervention on Nina’s part. Nina? Though she lost her parents through suicide and murder, found a father that would do whatever he has to do in order to protect her. (Quite possibly the most unrealistic part of the movie. Child services anyone? But I’ll give this utterly depressing movie one slightly optimistic overture.) Does that make sense?

Personally, this movie struck a chord. I know I’ve mentioned it in another review or two, but I’ve considered joining a tech team NGO doing work to use facial recognition to find sexually traffic girls. No, it’s not a ball-peen hammer wielding lunatic. But yeah, I’ve considered the thought of working more actively to save girls from these kinds of tragedies. And one of my larger moral failings is that I haven’t figured out how to help a friend of mine out who has a local shelter for sexually trafficked gals all up and down the front range. Just such a tragic thing.

So What is You Were Never Really Here About?

Congratulations, we solved the what. But not the deeper reason, or meaning. And I believe that we see a number of institutions abusing power gravely. We see border chaos. And children dying while being smuggled. We see a boy shoot another boy over a candy bar. We see state governors swallow children whole. It’s like this entire movie is an ode to systems of power gobbling up the disadvantaged and the disempowered.

And what about that title? You Were Never Really Here… what does that mean? It is a mini-poem, an ode really, to all of the lost individuals that had been made to disappear. Really? Don’t believe me? Think about it… if Joe hadn’t taken it upon himself to lay waste on behalf of the lost, who would have? In this movie? No one. We didn’t see a single person hunting for Nina.

So we get this feeling like, we are alone in this world, and the powerful will play with you however they will. And when they are done with you? They will cast you aside. This movie is a hostile and uninviting world that they live in. And yet, I don’t think our world that we live in is too much different from this. If you’d like to join me on a tour of the dark web, you might be shocked at what happens there. Chat with your local shelter for women released from sexual trafficking. Spend time on the periphery of a war zone. Meet with people charged with clearing land mines. But we prefer to avoid thinking about all of these unpleasantries. But thankfully, You Were Never Really Here reminds us of what we have been trying to forget all along.

Edited by, CY

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8 Responses

  1. Andrew

    Hiya. Love reading these blog posts. Any thoughts on why Joe bemones the fact there are no green jelly beans then when he finds one he crushes it between his fingers rather than eating it? Has to be some theme dropped in for symvoluc vale but what is its meaning?

    • Taylor Holmes

      Thanks Andrew,
      That is a great question. I wondered that too. Joe seems to be getting important information about this girl Nina that has gone missing at the time, right? I sort of took it to mean, oh good, I found a green one… oh they are sex trafficking this girl? CRUSH. That he hates what he is hearing more than he likes his green jelly beans. But I don’t know. Such a great movie. Also meant to talk about how I love that most of the actual violence is off screen, and inferred. So much more impactful that way.


  2. Tom

    Excellent review.

    I could be wrong, but I think Joe killed the security guards at the Governor’s mansion and the Governor was the only person Nina killed.

    Do you think the state senator had been going along with the abuse of his daughter (probably for political gain) and then had a change of heart? The guy Joe kills in the kitchen said “He wanted out”, which I took to mean the State Senator wanted out of his arrangement with the Governor regarding his daughter. This would explain why he had the address where the daughter was. Otherwise we have no explaination for who sent the anonymous text.

  3. Ryissa

    There are a couple of relatively minor pints I’d have to rewatch movie before I debated you on them. (I didn’t pick up on a tracker and his likely whereabouts he gave away himself. I also think the movie suggests the dead senator also abused Nina as the photos of the Senator and Nina subtly suggest that. Especially since nobody seems to be looking for her after the senator dies. So maybe she was neither man’s daughter? But these are not critical plot points other than the latter gives Joe an added reason to go after governor).

    One reviewer panned the movie complaining he didn’t buy into the”hitman with a heart” angle. Not that I’m an expert, but anyone who tries to look at this movie that simplisticly misses the point.

    It’s a nuanced portrayal of a man struggling with demons and arguably letting those demons loose occasionally through the brutal way he dispatches the “bad” guys.

    He’s restrained in his speaking. He’s restrained in his expression of joy (at one moment where he seems to be having fun in a mirror it feels off and creepy and funny at the same time). He’s restrained with his violence. Sure he can be brutal but there’s an odd level of restraint in this too. He is restrained in whom he selects to kill, at the expense of placing himself at risk. He has enough restraint to take himself to the brink of death repeatedly through self asphyxiation, but never accidentally kills himself in the process. Ex FBI and Gulf War Vet, yet he only chooses a hammer to do his killing.

    I’ve backed up my delete key more times than I can count putting down my thoughts on this movie. Mainly because so much of what I have to say is from my reflections about this character and film. Goodness knows there wasn’t much dialogue to explain things.

    If you’ve watched a few of the darker action films you’ll see where this movie stays right on a knife’s edge of how dark this character is. There are moments where Joe could have been more dark and brutal. I would never say he turns into Mr Rogers, but he chooses a path of grim faced restraint in terms of whatever he does next. But he does it with such a poker face we are never sure why he did or didn’t do something. He certainly won’t tell us why!

    Descriptive word list:
    – interior film
    – Intense
    – Paced
    – Dark
    – Surprising
    – Compelling
    – Fascinating
    – Under stated
    – Subtle
    – Minimalist
    – Still not sure that was Phoenix, pretty sure he’s not that scary
    – Freaky
    – Satisfying
    – Don’t blink

    There are some minor plot holes that adding some more dialogue might have fixed at the expense of the movie. There are worse things than an unanswered question that doesn’t change overall movie.

    • Taylor Holmes

      Hey Ryissa-
      Thought provoking response. Made me think a bit in what I thought about the film. Made me remember many thinks I really enjoyed about the film. And most importantly, it made me want to watch the film all over again. And from the actor’s and film maker’s point of view, has to be an A+ comment! Agree, with me, disagree – whatever, just think about the film and the deeper alley ways that it carries you through.

      Man I liked this film. And I literally can’t remember a word I wrote up there. Maybe I panned it. But right now? Sitting in a hotel room in Nashville for 12 hours then on to Atlanta (I think?), I loved it. It marinated well for me since I saw it and wrote about it. It’s juices and feelings, it’s seasonings and technicolor? all mixed into a beautiful sauté. And I haven’t seen the movie since I wrote about it. And yet it hasn’t left me.

      Truth be told, I have a very bad memory. 80% of movies I watch, and talk to you about… and you comment on 6 months later? The comment comes through on my phone, and I say to myself? What movie is THAT?!? But this one got bigger, and brighter, and more alive since I saw it last. (Think I’m almost adding an addendum to my review with this comment?!?) so yeah, I really liked this film. Liked it a lot. And your comment Ryissa, reminded me of that. So thanks.

  4. Ryissa

    I watched this probably around the same time you did and feel the same way. I rented it again last night and fell asleep (don’t rent movies after midnight). So will find a way to watch this eve while assembling kids costumes and Minecraft decor.

    This movie is definitely a testament to there being no need to explain everything to the audience. It also shows how to effectively use flashbacks. Not as a quick way to tell the audience what is happening, but as subtle layers that change your perspective the more they are revealed.

    I’m a listener of “ The Guilty Feminist” podcast. On a recent episode of that there was discussion about how more women find ways to be able to make movies without male superiors insisting on edits they are comfortable with the more non-linear stories we’ll see with less tidy endings. I think the layering of this film echoes that perspective.

  5. Ryissa

    So I rewatched it –

    No tracker. Think he was just yanking what he could of busted tooth after being shot in face.

    I still think Nina not senator’s daughter but was girl both Senator and Governor had shared. The dying security guy said something about the governor trading girls and Joe seems to put together what this meant later in his train vision/montage.

    Interestingly the TV news mentioned nothing of senator leaving behind teenaged daughter which kind of supports this.

    Not to mention at the end of the movie neither Joe nor Nina seem nervous about anybody looking for her. If she was actually a senator’s daughter pretty sure massive manhunt to find her would be underway if she was missing after daddy’s death.

    His handler has bloodied nose when he tells joe about job. Also mentions about how this job will allow him to take his large boat out of dry dock. Joe is seemingly oblivious to bleeding nose. So either it’s a character quirk for handler or his handler got pressured into accepting job for Joe that wasn’t exactly a “rescue”.

    I’m still trying to sort out whether young Joe or his mom killed Joe’s father. Interesting counterpoint if both “victims” who matter most to Joe (Nina and Joe’s mom) managed to kill their abusers and Joe always thought as a “man” it should have been him.

    Okay. Time for me to stop obsessing over this


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