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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34 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

  6. Peter

    Ah, no. Sorry. You might want to watch the movie again. First, Nina’s father is not McCleary. Second, I think he jumped: Suicide because he had been abusing his own daughter OR neglecting to save her. Also, why he got rid of the mother or pushed her to suicide.
    Making or even just thinking a sequel is out of sync with the movie. They might have a new beginning – but it’s a traumatic, troubled one. They are more likely to find simple things as they treat their trauma; maybe they even choose to die. The empty gazes and nightmares could suggest that “peaceful” ending. But I lean towards them going to a lake, letting the sun, wind, sound take them :).
    OR, It’s all a dream: Cause why is no one searching for Nina??

  7. Nick Summy

    A lot in this movie is open to debate, but some facts you definitely got wrong:

    1. He uses the payphone at the airport before flying back to NYC. All airports still have payphones.

    2. The meeting place for senator votto to pickup Nina was not in that parking garage. Joe clearly tells him what hotel and room number to come to and at what time (3 am).

    3. Those weren’t security personnel that tried to kill Joe and took nina. Those were NYPD cops.

    3. You are confusing senator votto with John mcleary. Senator votto is the one trying to get Nina back. He is also the one who jumps off the hotel. John mcleary is the guy who gives Joe the job.

    4. Joe didn’t pull out some tracking device. It looked like a bullet that was stuck in his tooth. He tells Johns answering machine that he had been shot in the face.

    5. Joe didn’t go to his handler’s house. The only handler we see in the movie is angel. He went to Johns house (as evidenced by the jelly beans). There had obviously been a struggle and that’s when Joe notices that even though John wasn’t there, his car was. He then drives to Johns office where John is dead, still wearing his bath robe.

    6. The intruder Joe shot at his house didn’t say “I don’t want it out.” He said “votto wanted out.”

    7. Joe was the one who killed the guards at the mansion. Nina killed Williams.

    Haha ironic that you said this movie isn’t confusing as long as you paid attention!

  8. Bobby

    If you like this movie try; Running scared with Paul walker, or Mr Brooks with Kevin Costner.

  9. Fred

    I Always thought he pulled the tooth out simply because he wanted to make himself feel pain as a response to feeling guilty for losing Nina. Face shooting makes more sense though. Tracking device idea in OP was hilarious

  10. Ryan

    This was a terrible review. So many mistakes it makes my head hurt. Nick Summy’s response addresses most of these inaccuracies.

  11. Ron G

    This film captured me right away and it held on but I was constantly trying to catch up. I am most confused by the sequence of events at William’s house near the end. Joe kills the guard outside on his way in. Once he’s inside he kills the guard in the kitchen who from the looks of things I assumed was also preparing a meal for Williams or Nina or both. If Nina is the dining room eating the meal with bloody switchblade on the table (before Joe even got inside) how could the guard in the kitchen not know there had already been some kind of altercation between Nina and Williams?

  12. Paul

    Having just watched the film last night and read all these comments this morning, here are my theories:
    1) Nina is not the daughter of the Senator or the Governor, she is just a girl shared between them in an elite vice conspiracy. (The name ‘Nina’ might suggest Eastern European origins.) The brief flashback showing both men in a hotel room supports this. The whole plot was about a fight and cover-up over her between both men.
    2) The Senator’s wife probably committed suicide because she found out about her husband’s involvement. He then wanted to either save Nina out of guilt (and maybe go public), or claim her for his own for comfort. (He does seem understandably distressed during his meeting with Joe and emotionally unbalanced, “Make sure you hurt them.”) The Senator’s wife has ultimately put the whole plot in motion.
    3) When the Senator doesn’t show up at the motel it is because he has either: a) been killed by the Governor’s men for the reasons above and he has admitted to them about hiring Joe, or; b) has comitted suicide out of guilt. (In fact, could the hotel room that both men are seen in during the brief flashback be the same one that the Senator is thrown off of moments later after admitting what he has done, or intends to do? This would then lead the men to Joe’s boss and handler.)
    4) Joe pulls either a bullet or a broken tooth from his mouth – he does say he has been shot in the face and his cheek wounds support this.
    5) Joe kills the security men in the Governor’s mansion. Nina has only killed the Governor. I do like the ironic theory that his mother killed his abusive father and now Nina has killed her abuser – both murders that torment Joe as he feels guilty he did not spare either woman from committing them, and this irony is not lost on Joe with the wry chuckle of defeat he lets out upon discovering the Governor’s body – history has repeated itself.
    6) Because of this, Joe feels like he has led his entire life as a loser, or a curse on the people he tries to help. (Remember the kid who got shot just because he gave them a candy bar?) This culminates in his suicidal fantasy in the diner. But hope comes in the form of Nina who convinces him, even after everything she has gone through, that “it is a beautiful day” and life is worth living.
    7) Has anyone read the book upon which the film is based? May be this has more answers.

  13. Allan Woelff-Neumann

    Its so frustrating where I live this movie is not available and amazon no longer here no idea why!!!! Maybe our stupid government!! Please Taylor. Help me get hold of “you were never here” and yes I’m in south Africa!! I have received some great advice already tracking down these movies we have Netflix, google movies which focuses on all the blockbusters, and amazon prime video, and apple TV. But amazon won’t deliver to the city that contributes 13% of the GDP of Africa, Johannesburg. They use too……

  14. db

    Decent analysis but perhaps a little incomplete. The more I think about things, It’s obvious that Joe and Nina became lovers at the end. Nina was trying to put the moves on Joe in the car, right after he rescued her the first time. Yes, Joe encouraged her to stop but the sexual tension was hanging thick and heavy in the air. Then she goes missing again. Instead of giving up, Joe’s love for Nina takes over and her well-being becomes his number one passion in life. They also had a lot in common with each other, like traumatic childhoods and counting backwards. Then the last scene shows an empty booth at the diner, which indicated to me that they left to enjoy the beautiful day together as a couple.

  15. db

    Descent analysis but perhaps a little incomplete. The more I think about things, It’s obvious that Joe and Nina became lovers at the end. Nina was trying to put the moves on Joe in the car, right after he rescued her the first time. Yes, Joe encouraged her to stop but the sexual tension was hanging thick and heavy in the air. Then she goes missing again. Instead of giving up, Joe’s love for Nina takes over and her well-being becomes his number one passion in life. They also had a lot in common with each other, like traumatic childhoods and counting backwards. Then the last scene shows an empty booth at the diner, which indicated to me that they left to enjoy the beautiful day together as a couple.

  16. Chris

    In the first scene with Joe’s mother, on the hall tree is a boot camp picture of Joe. A US Marine.

  17. Amy

    Dude, you’ve definitely got some names and details wrong. You should fix those ASAP. The man who claimed to be the girls father was Votto. The man who Joe worked for was Macleary. And theres no way that girl killed all the security guards…Joe did.

  18. Lisa

    It’s ball pein hammer. Clearly visible in hardware store scene. ’I’ve been to Paradise’ was an early 70s hit, a pseudo feminist anthem that actually talks about an empty life of being exploited by men. So you get the meaning. And it played so much everyone knew all the lyrics. I haven’t read all the comments, but I don’t think the point was that that he was a psychopath. He was damaged by a life of violence: abuse by a sadistic father, confusing and senseless deaths in the military, the truck full of women he seemed to be discovering, not having caused. Straight up, beyond belief PTSD. He seemed to have a code, and also only hurt people who were committing horrifying acts on children. Have you never seen taxi driver? Tfav is Bickle the ’mass murderer’ gains fame as an avenging angel once the world learns of his child saving intentions. Was he a psychopath, or an outsider, lost and confused. (Also a vet.) Good film, a little blurry toward the end. Joachim Phoenix is underrated and lost a lot of his juice when he participated in that year long hoax that turned out to be a pseudo-documentary. Lastly, it’s wit’s end. Whit Stillman is a writer director!

  19. Lisa

    It’s ball pein hammer. Clearly visible in hardware store scene. ’I’ve been to Paradise’ was an early 70s hit, a pseudo feminist anthem that actually talks about an empty life of being exploited by men. So you get the meaning. And it played so much everyone knew all the lyrics. I haven’t read all the comments, but I don’t think the point was that that he was a psychopath. He was damaged by a life of violence: abuse by a sadistic father, confusing and senseless deaths in the military, the truck full of women he seemed to be discovering, not having caused. Straight up, beyond belief PTSD. He seemed to have a code, and also only hurt people who were committing horrifying acts on children. Have you never seen taxi driver? Tfav is Bickle the ’mass murderer’ gains fame as an avenging angel once the world learns of his child saving intentions. Was he a psychopath, or an outsider, lost and confused. (Also a vet.) Good film, a little blurry toward the end. Joachim Phoenix is underrated and lost a lot of his juice when he participated in that year long hoax that turned out to be a pseudo-documentary. Lastly, it’s wit’s end. Whit Anderson is a writer director!

  20. Chris mcmullen

    Joe killed the gaurds at the end Nina only killed the governor I doubt that girl could kill all of them and not get stoped or at least hurt and the father of Nina he was in on it the guy Joe sings with said he wanted out he was always crying about it other then that great review and yes an absolutely amazing film.

  21. Chuck

    I loved all the self-abuse scenes, from the standpoint that they show that he has such poor self-esteem despite being a former Marine and FBI agent–both incredibly prestigious and elite jobs. He must be so bright and talented underneath it all. But he was made to feel so insignificant by his Dad (“Stand up straight! Only Pussies slouch!””) that, in order to continue this pattern in his life, he would deliberately hurt himself by suffocation, etc., as an adult. I would say this is akin to the cutting we saw from Amy Adams in “Sharp Objects.”

    The juxtaposition between the violence Joe / Mr. Rogers commits and his loving behavior toward his mother is brilliant. Cleaning up the bathroom after her shower, singing songs with her, etc. Shows what a complex character he was.

    All of the upbeat songs in the soundtrack really threw me off! “‘A’ you’re adorable,” “If I knew you were coming I’d a baked a cake,” wow! Those were serious blasts from my childhood past and major departures from the underlying theme of the movie. I am impressed the director was able to feature these in a manner that did not make light of the subject matter. If anything, it caused more melancholy because you as the viewer feel for Joe and Nina as children who each lost their chance to have happy-go-lives.

    Some other ideas:
    Votto not the girls father; definitely one her abusers. He wanted “out” — hence why he hires Joe, knows/divulges the address of the house, tells Joe to cause the captors harm, and commits suicide.

    The tooth must have gotten damaged when he was shot in the face, hence why he removed it. OR other idea: more self-flagellation for losing Nina the first time around.

    Was it really that dangerous for the Latino boy to have seen Joe at his home? Why was Joe so concerned about this, and why did it mean that he and McClearly had to give up.

    Incredible scene when Joe realizes Governor already dead. Scoffing at himself (got there too late; not competent enough to do his job), bawling crying (despondent Nina had to kill the Governor herself), ripping off his clothes, then saying, “I’m WEAK” over and over, w/his Dad’s voice in the background.

    I’d say *maybe* three American male actors could pull off the crying scene at the diner. Wow.

  22. billy

    Nina didnt kill all the guards she just killed the governor… Joe killed the guards, the acts just weren’t shown, they were implied

  23. Robert

    Holy hell not one person so far actually noticed what this movie is about despite the fact that there’s a giveaway it’s in the damn title and the cab driver at the start says it: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE; i.e. Joe wasn’t there in the cab (or most places in the movie, for that matter).

    Almost none of the events in this movie happened outside of Joe’s mind.
    The core of this film is Joe trying to deal with the fact that his mother forced him into an incestuous relationship with her, which resulted in Joe’s father beating her with a hammer and smashing their place before leaving when Joe was a child; the “hammer” (I’ll give you one guess why it’s a ball-peen hammer, not a claw) that was then transferred to him as the man of the house, his father having dropped it to the floor before departing. Long term effects can be found on Joe’s body (multiple self inflicted cuts which have long healed), bouts of self-asphyxiation via plastic (as child) or wet towel (as adult), and the massive amounts of meds Joe takes throughout the entire movie.

    Here’s just one hint; check out that scene at the start when Joe’s mother asks him to”stay” with her. Doesn’t he seem to be doing something a bit odd with his hand there in the dark under the covers? yeah.

    Here’s a (very) brief and not nearly detailed enough breakdown of what was real and what wasn’t:

    – Scenes in the present day house with Joe and his mother at the very start
    – Everything with Joe as a child
    – Everything in the military (or could be border patrol; my guess is military based on the candy bar incident)
    – Joe driving around, and taking local transit (specifically local, because he never leaved his town) while taking medication
    – Joe in the steam room, face covered with a wet cloth (once even swinging the hammer, as if the director thought people would be way too dense to figure this movie out and had to throw in a 100% give away) as he hallucinates all of the fighting, all of the kidnapped girl rescue, all of the stuff with the senator, and everything involving his psychiatrist (sorry, “handler”, as everyone here seems to call him, since nobody read this movie past the front page) beyond meeting him.

    In Joe’s Mind:
    – Basically everything else. He never does any of that other stuff; he was never really there.

    There’s a million tells in this movie that let you know what’s real and what isn’t (check the pictures on the living room bureau in the scene when Joe’s mother pretends to be asleep, for one) and to write them all here would be like writing a master’s thesis.

    But this movie really is a master work. It’s unfortunate that it most likely won’t be until years from now that people actually understand what it’s about. Either that or it will remain in obscurity.

  24. Nick Summy

    Robert – Wrong. You need to read the book that this movie was based on. Everything in the movie was “real.”

    1. The title You Were Never Really Here is based on a phrase he heard in his head one time when he tried to kill himself. He knew he could never do it while his mother was alive, but when she died, his plan was to drown himself and leave no body, thus, him never really being there. He also lived his life in a way where he was somewhat untraceable. He didn’t interact with many people, no one knew where he lived, he didn’t use a cell phone, etc. Basically living as he wasn’t really there.

    2. There was no incest. The hammer was a weapon his dad used once to scare him into thinking he was going to beat him with it. His father never left the family but instead died. His father’s weapon of choice was a broken in half broom handle.

    3. Joe was in the Marines (Desert Storm) and then later in the FBI where he worked in a human trafficking.

    4. His handler is not his psychiatrist but instead a former cop and a private investigator.

    One other bonus fact that I am 90% sure of (as the movie plot slightly differs from parts of the book): Votto is the girl’s real father. The issue was that he took money and help to get elected from the mob, and part of the deal is that they got to keep his daughter for a year.

    I didn’t realize this was based on a book until last week. I got it for 5 bucks on Amazon and highly recommend it. It answers all of the major questions and is a quick read. I read it all in one night.

  25. Jacob

    Book to movie plot may be different. I haven’t read the book, but tell tell indications that support the above post:

    Both the governor and senator are running for reelection.

    The senator and governor both abuse the girl.

    The girl does not want to go home to her father.

    The run-a-way excuse is the fathers story to explain the trading performed with the senator and governor without raising suspicion.

    The senator wanted out, or didnt like a deal by the governor. Either way, there was a fallout. The mafia or governor torment the senator by pimping his daughter. The senator wants his daughter back, but doesnt want to explain his guilty affiliation or rat out the governor. Instead, he’s hoping the hitman will take care of everything.

    After the daughter was taken from the pimp house, they killed the senator and worked to find the hitman.

    Everything here after is self explanatory until the end.

    The ending suicide scene allows you to see Joe’s thoughts in a visual term. He kills himself and no one gives a shit, as if, “he was never really there.” The empty table shows dirty dishes, but no people. This is how society is. We are engulfed in our own lives and never see others as their own self, just the mess they leave behind.

    The part I’m confused about is whether the girl actually lived or died. I had a suspicion that she actually killed herself by slitting her wrists after killing the governor. The blade is shown next to her and the blood continues to spill on her plate. Not cary over from her throat slashing, but her own blood. At the diner, joe wishes she was there. But when she walks away, he begins to cry and then fantasizes shooting himself. I believe he is incapable of actually doing so. As a result, his hallucinates nina returning and saying, “wake up joe, it’s a beautiful day.”

  26. Orange

    I like the theory that everything is imagined. The emotional reaction to the governor and his slit throat is because Joe has reversed genders in his imagined scenes. The actual abuser is his mother and he remembers her murder through the imagined throat slit scene. The girl with the battered face on the train platform is his old girlfriend from twenty years ago. Joe beat her and she left. It’s a real clue the mother describes the old girlfriend as “She would have been a good mother”. The young girl is the symbol of Joe’s damaged inner child. She is him becoming better.

  27. Daimon

    So here is something I was thinking as I watched the movie – could it be that he is not really a man at all but still the boy. The girl is his sister who is being abused by (maybe multiple) adults. He is imagining being an older, more powerful human being who is able to battle these adults. This is a WILD speculation and would be awkward to explain away the death of his mother but, as a child also being abused, he would have met all of these bad people so could mentally project into the future and deal with them all.

  28. Jesse

    I think you made a couple of goofs in your review. There was no tracking beacon in his tooth, he removed the tooth because he got shot in the face and the tooth was too damaged. (The reason the crooked cops found him was that he had a rendezvous with the father at that hotel, presumably whoever threw the father off the hotel got the address first). Also, Nina didn’t kill the entire security detail, that was all Joe. He killed the detail and then found the body of the governor. Admittedly the timing is a little hard to figure in that she must have killed him and walked out just shortly before Joe enters the room or the guards would have found her, but to say that she killed them is a huge stretch. Why if she’d already killed the guard by the gate would she return to the house? And could a child really kill four men, three of them armed and trained?

  29. Pub

    If you thought this was a film about a disturbed loner avenging an innocent, you got snookered.

    The only way to understand YWNRH is through a Freudian lens. This is the analysis I found on IMDB, written by FrostyChud. Makes you think again…

    The theme of this film is not father-daughter incest as it appears, but rather mother-son incest.

    Joe has an incestuous relationship with his mother. “Stay with me a little longer,” she says when he puts her to bed. In the next scene, she is trying to cajole him into coming into the bathroom where she is naked. The multiple references to PSYCHO are not a coincidence: this too is the story of a man transformed into a serial murderer by his obscene mother.

    The story proper is nothing is a paranoid delusion: hence the title of the film and the mysterious “invisibility” of the main character.

    The true story: Joe, as a child, is dragged into an incestuous relationship by his mother. His father, whose job ought to be to prevent this regressive fusion, does not have the authority to separate them. He is too violent, too weak, or too absent: we never find out. All we ever see of him is a hand holding a hammer. This scene must be understood as a metaphor. Father discovers their relationship and explodes; as he rages impotently with his hammer, mother and son exchange a complicit glance under the bed. Translation of the mother’s wink: “He’s impotent. You’re still MINE.” On mother’s credenza is a photo of her as a young and beautiful woman and a photo of her son. Father has been eliminated from the picture.

    Joe rescues abused girls. This is a fantasy. No abused girl ever existed, only an abused boy. Joe invents the story of a girl abused by her father as a displacement of the true abuse: a boy by his mother.

    What actually happens in the movie, and what is fantasy? What actually happens is very simple. Joe murders his mother. Joe commits suicide. Perhaps the homosexual encounter in the sauna and the drugs are true. Everything else is a delusion that he creates to escape from the horror of the truth. In Joe’s fantasy, he is a powerful man and not a victim. He has a benevolent father figure (McCleary). He makes ample use of the hammer which appears to be the only trace of a paternal legacy. The Nina character is how Joe sees his mother: as a beautiful, innocent, prohibited object of desire. Joe’s delusion is simultaneously an attempt to understand the truth and an attempt to flee the truth. David Lynch uses this technique more explicitly in LOST HIGHWAY, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and TWIN PEAKS. It is very effective on film and Lynne Ramsay is right to exploit it. In Joe’s delusion, the father (represented by the two- dimensional Votto and Williams characters) takes “illegal” possession of his daughter. In reality, this is how the young Joe perceives his father’s possession of his mother: as an unbearable crime that must be punished. Did Joe murder his own father? It is possible. Note that in all of Joe’s traumatic flashbacks, women are being murdered, not men. These flashbacks are not real. They are irruptions of Joe’s deepest fantasy: murder his mother. He never went to Iraq.

    One day, like Ed Kemper, Joe finally kills his mother. He is the one who shot her in the head. To exculpate himself, he flees into an unbelievable political conspiracy fantasy in which all symbolic fathers are pedophile criminals. Why is Joe so protective of his mother’s privacy? Because he doesn’t want anyone to find out what is going on between them.

    I wasn’t sure the director understood her own story until the moment she replaced Joe’s sinking mother with Nina. Here she could not be clearer: Nina is just a fantasy screen for Mother.

    In reality, Joe really does shoot himself in the diner. The fantasy of a happy future with Nina is just a screen.

    I have read Jonathan Ames before and the theme of maternal incest is often implied (his fascination for transsexuals is further proof of an Oedipal thematic).

    Good movie.

    • Max

      The description of the movie turned me off at first, then I saw Joachim Phonix was starring in it, then I checked review scores and was intrigued – was it going to be a subversion of genre tropes? Deconstruction of a male power fantasy? That’s what I thought at first and that’s what your review and my initial viewing pointed towards, but there could be more to it. I read Joe’s obsession with underage girls as an attempt to regain his adolescent sexuality, after all, if he did have an incestuous relationship with his mother, it probably denied him sexual experiences with his peers. His mom talking about Joe’s girlfriend ‘she would have made a good mother’ – cut to Joe suffocating himself. If his abuser/lover compares his girlfriend to herself, one can fully understand the scene. I had all these associations and immediately thought of a twist ala Fight Club. After the end of the movie I checked out other critics’ reviews and none of them seemed to notice what I noticed, and I was convinced that decaded of ‘tweeeests’ had ruined me – this was just trauma porn mixed with dad revenge… or was it?
      At this point I don’t know what to think and it could very well be up to the viewer: understand the title as metaphor or fact? Did Joe abuse the girls/just one girl/rescue them/imagine them? Did Joe kill the senator or did je kill himself, or were human traffickers involved? Whose viewpoint is it we see most of the time? What’s with the girl at the train station who bears an eerie resemblance to Nina? Why does she have a bruise just like Joe? Does the setup make any sense? Who would pay for Joe going after child traffickers? If you wanted to save the girls you’d notify the police, but we never see any other girls being saved aside from Nina – it’s just so weird…


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