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Film / You Were Never Really Here

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Senator Votto: McCleary said you were brutal.
Joe: I can be.

You Were Never Really Here is a 2018 thriller film written and directed by indie auteur Lynne Ramsay based on the 2013 novella of the same name by Jonathan Ames (which got an expanded version in 2018). It stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a Shell-Shocked Veteran who works to free young girls from sexual slavery. Joe is hired to save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of Senator Albert Votto, only to uncover a conspiracy that's larger than it seems.

The film won critical acclaim, including Best Screenplay and Best Actor awards at the Cannes Film Festival.


  • Abusive Parents:
    • According to Joe's flashbacks, his father was abusive to him and his mother.
    • Nina's father pimped her out to the Big Bad and his clients.
  • Adaptation Name Change: Senator Votto's daughter was named Lisa in the original story. In the film, her name is Nina.
  • All for Nothing: Happens a lot throughout the story:
    • During his time in the military, Joe offers a candy bar to a young boy, only for the boy to get immediately killed and mugged.
    • This extends once again into his time working for the FBI, where his team finds a cargo crate full of dead teenage girls.
    • Once Joe rescues Nina, they both find out that her father committed suicide out of regret for selling her into sexual slavery. And then only a minute later, Nina is kidnapped again...
    • The second and final time Joe attempts to rescue Nina, once he finally reaches her, she had already killed Governor Williams herself, proving that she's more than capable of defending herself. This is probably the only time this trope is used in the film with positive results.
    • It's implied that Joe feels this way about himself given his constant suicidal thoughts.
  • Alas, Poor Villain:
    • The camera lingers on the mugger who attacked Joe and got headbutt for his troubles. The man crouches on the pavement, gasping for breath, and then pukes.
    • A very curious scene has Joe shoot one of the Big Bad's thugs and, after a little half-hearted kicking and smacking the dying man for information, he gives him a painkiller, lies down beside him and starts humming an old song with him. The thug even reaches out to hold Joe's hand. All this in spite of the thug being one of two men responsible for killing Joe's mother. It's implied that Joe is too grieved to sustain any anger at the man.
  • Anti-Climax: Joe recovers from his own suicidal impulses and breaks into Governor Williams' mansion, only to find that Nina has already killed him.
  • Anti-Hero: Joe is a violent, self-destructive man, but he only kills some very, very bad people and truly cares about saving Nina.
  • Anyone Can Die: Joe and Nina are the only characters who survive to the very end of the film.
  • Artifact Title: The title makes little sense in the film adaptation, as it was supposed to reference Joe's routine of erasing traces of his presence when performing his rescues but that detail omitted entirely at the behest of Phoenix.
  • Assassin Outclassin': Governor Williams sends two hitmen to Joe's house after discovering his address. Joe ambushes and kills both with ease, but only after they've already murdered his mother in her sleep.
  • Ate His Gun: Joe has an Imagine Spot of eating his gun in the diner in the very last scene, but then Nina returns and says that it's a beautiful day, rousing Joe from his dark fantasy.
  • Attempted Suicide: After his mother is killed, Joe attempts to end his life by filling his pockets with rocks and walking into a lake with her body. A vision of Nina reminds him that he still has something to live for, and he swims back up to the surface.
  • Beard of Sorrow: Joe is haunted by numerous events of trauma in his life and sports a large, wild beard.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Joe is a pretty quiet man, but he also has a reputation for being quite brutal and the film makes clear it's entirely deserved.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: New York is shown to be a corrupt, uncaring place not even getting into the child trafficking ring headed by Governor Williams. Beyond that, exteriors are shown as an almost deafening cacophony of noise, putting the audience in Joe's shoes.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Joe manages to rescue Nina, who helps him pull through a particularly severe suicidal impulse so they can go out on a beautiful day, but at the cost of every other supporting character dying.
  • Blood from the Mouth: Nonfatal example when Joe removes one of his own loose teeth with a pair of pliers.
  • Bruiser with a Soft Center: Joe is a violent and brutal man with suicidal tendencies who nonetheless cares for his aging mother, loves cats, and is disgusted by child abuse.
  • Caught with Your Pants Down: Joe catches two patrons of the child brothel still in the nude, and kills both without hesitation.
  • Cerebus Call-Back: In the beginning of the film, Joe thinks his mother is asleep and takes her glasses off, causing her to burst out laughing and reveal that she was fooling him. In the end, Joe finds his mother murdered and takes her glasses off, one lens shattered by a bullet.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Joe is a ruthlessly efficient killer when on the job, taking most of his enemies out with one or two hits.
  • Cop Killer: Joe has to kill a Dirty Cop in self-defense at one point.
  • Covered in Scars: Joe's arms and torso are covered in some nasty-looking keloid scars. Whether he got them from his time in Afghanistan, the FBI, or his own abusive father is never revealed.
  • Creepy Dollhouse: Joe's attempts to rescue Nina, a young victim of sex trafficking, are intercut by scenes of a grown man playing with a dollhouse, although without dolls. This is used to represent that he's a pedophile who has abducted and abused Nina with her father's help.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death: We don't get a good look at John's body, but he seems to have had all his fingers cut off and his throat cut.
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: Pretty much every fight Joe gets into. The only person to give him any trouble at all is one of the cops who helps kidnap Nina, and that's only because he caught Joe off guard and was able to hold him at gunpoint. Even then, Joe easily dominates the fight almost instantly with some brutal hits and a BJJ style leg lock and choke, killing him.
  • Dad the Veteran: Joe becomes an adopted version of this to Nina at the end.
    • A significantly darker version of this trope is represented in Joe's childhood flashbacks. We see a young Joe being kept in a closet by his abusive father; in said closet is a United States Marine Corps dress uniform, indicating that Joe's father was a Marine.
  • Damsel in Distress: Nina, the 13-year-old girl who was sold into sexual slavery. Joe is hired to rescue her, which he does midway through the film.
  • Damsel out of Distress: In the end, Nina kills Governor Williams herself before Joe even gets there.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: Oh lord, Joe.
    • His father was abusive towards him and his mother, with his habit of putting plastic bags over his face implied to be a defense mechanism carried over from childhood.
    • He then later joined the Army, where he gave a candy bar to a young child who was later murdered for it in front of his eyes.
    • After that, he joined the FBI, where a mission leads to him discovering a meat locker full of dead girls.
  • Death Seeker: Joe contemplates suicide several times throughout the film. He also repeatedly asphyxiates himself with plastic bags, something that is implied to be a defense mechanism from his years as an abused child.
  • Dirty Cop: Some of the police are shown to be complicit in the conspiracy, as Nina is kidnapped by two beat cops after Joe rescues her the first time.
  • Emotionless Girl: Nina, much like Joe, suppresses all emotion as a way to deal with her trauma.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • The film opens with Joe attempting to suffocate himself with a plastic bag, indicating his suicidal ideations, and then cleaning up the evidence from a recent job in a hotel room, establishing his profession.
    • Joe comes home to find that his mother has passed out in front of the television. When he takes her glasses off, she bursts out laughing, announcing that she "got him." This establishes their loving relationship, and is also meaningfully the only time Joe laughs.
  • Foreshadowing: John has a nosebleed and places several wads of tissue stained with blood on his desk. Later, Joe finds him slumped on his desk in a pool of blood.
  • Expy: Joe could be seen as one of Travis Bickle of Taxi Driver. Like Travis, he is a psychologically troubled war veteran who dedicates himself to rescuing a teenage girl from sexual predators. Like Travis, he rescues the girl, but both films end with some ambiguity as to what is next for their respective protagonists.
  • Gory Discretion Shot: There's a lot of violence in this film, but the quick editing ensures that we only really see the aftermath of most of it.
  • Human Traffickers: The primary antagonist of the film, Governor Williams, has girls abducted and "traded" to clients to make a profit. Because of the influence he commands, he has politicians and the police in his pocket, thus he likely would have gotten away with it were it not for Joe.
  • I Have Your Wife: Senator Votto's daughter was kidnapped by a group of rich pedophiles. Subverted when we learn that he is the one who sold her in the first place.
  • I Let Gwen Stacy Die: During a flashback to Joe's FBI days, we are shown him opening up a locker where the dead bodies of several teenage girls have been stored. The incident caused him some serious emotional trauma, because he breaks down emotionally in the present after some girls ask him to take their picture and it's all he can think of. No doubt this event serves as a catalyst for why he wants to rescue Nina so badly, because he failed to help those girls all those years ago.
  • Imagine Spot: Joe has a number of flashbacks to previous trauma as well as a few hallucinations. In the end, he imagines shooting himself in the head. A few moments later, the fantasy is gone, and we see that Joe has simply dozed off on the table.
  • Jump Scare: Some of Joe's intrusive thoughts and traumatic memories take this form, as the camera will cut for a split second to some horrifying image before jumping back to reality.
  • Karmic Death: Williams gets his throat sliced open by Nina, the girl he bought as a Sex Slave. One can also count the two nameless patrons of the child brothel whose skulls Joe caves in.
  • Kind Hearted Cat Lover: Joe is seen petting John's cat at one point.
  • Meaningful Echo: Time is spent showing Joe buying and then offering various types of candy and soda to Nina. His flashbacks show that he's haunted by an instance when he gave candy to a boy in a war zone, causing the boy to get killed for the candy.
  • Moe Greene Special: Joe's mom is shot through the eye in her sleep, shattering one of her eyeglasses. A possible Homage to the Trope Namer.
  • Momma's Boy: Joe is a middle-aged man living with his mother, who is starting to become a bit frail.
  • Mugging the Monster: In a very early scene, Joe establishes his badass credentials by casually headbutting a would-be mugger who attacks him with a blackjack. Joe visually contemplates delivering another blow, but simply walks away, also establishing him as someone without any tendencies toward sadism or rage.
  • Non-Action Big Bad: Governor Williams is the main villain but is never shown fighting anyone and Nina is able to fight him off and kill him, making it clear he wouldn't be much use in a fight anyway.
  • No Name Given: Joe's mother is never named.
  • Only One Name: We're never told what Joe's last name is.
  • One-Man Army: Joe takes out numerous opponents, including Governor Williams' entire security team, by himself and with little effort.
  • Papa Wolf: Subverted with Senator Votto, who hired Joe to rescue his daughter and tells him to make her kidnappers hurt. We later find out that he was the one who sold her into slavery and only now has had a crisis of conscience.
  • Pædo Hunt: The antagonists are a group of powerful men who traffic underage girls to use as sex slaves among themselves.
  • Properly Paranoid: Joe prefers to work through an intermediary and keep his location a secret, which John finds to be overly paranoid. He's upset when his handler's son figures out where he lives, which he sees as a security breach. By the midpoint of the film, thugs are after him and use the handler's son to locate Joe's address.
  • Retirony: Implied when the somewhat elderly John talks about how this latest job will allow him to finally take his yacht out of dry dock. John dies midway through the film.
  • Roaring Rampage of Rescue: First when Joe breaks into the secret child brothel to rescue Nina, and later when he storms the governor's mansion to rescue her again.
  • Rule of Symbolism: One can draw a lot of conclusions from a sequence where Joe complains about there not being any green jelly beans, his favorite. When he finds one, he crushes it between his fingers rather than eat it.
  • Self-Surgery: Joe removes a loose tooth with a pair of pliers.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: Joe has flashbacks to his time overseas. Two particular scenes haunt him. One in which he gave candy to a young boy, who was promptly murdered for the candy by another boy. The other is during a stint in the FBI, where he sees a meat locker full of dead girls.
  • Shout-Out: Joe's mom is watching Psycho in her first scene.
  • Silence Is Golden: As per Ramsay's Signature Style, there are long stretches of silence in the film as the story is told through visuals rather than dialogue and exposition.
  • Silent Antagonist: The Big Bad of the film, Governor Williams, has no lines in the movie, and we only ever see him after Nina has killed him.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: While he does know hand to hand combat, Joe's preferred method is to simply surprise foes and smash them multiple times with his hammer, as hard and as many times as he can, until they're dead.
  • Slashed Throat: How Governor Williams dies.
  • Soft-Spoken Sadist: Joe is a rare heroic example. Roughly 90% of his dialogue is softly mumbled under his breath. This is mostly due to his long history of trauma, and not any sociopathic tendencies on his part, however.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: The Sweet Dreams Fuel song "Angel Baby" by Rosie & The Originals plays during not one, but two scenes of Joe's Roaring Rampages of Rescue to save Nina.
  • The Stoic: Joe is clearly haunted by loads of trauma, but rarely displays overt emotion.
  • Suicide by Sea: By lake, at least. After thugs kill Joe's mom, he tries to drown himself by walking into a lake with her body. He resolves to continue living after seeing a hallucination of Nina.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: John likes jelly beans and keeps a bowl of them in his office, which Joe snacks from. When Joe returns, the camera lingers meaningfully on a scattering of jelly beans.
  • The Unfought: Governor Williams. Near the end of the film, Joe infiltrates his mansion to kill him and rescue Nina. Though Joe does kill his bodyguards, when he makes his way to his bedroom, he finds that Williams is already dead, having had his throat slashed open by Nina.
  • Violence Is Disturbing: Incredibly. Most of the violence is offscreen, instead showing the psychological and/or graphic consequences resulting from such actions, particularly in the form of Joe's PTSD. However, when the violence is shown, it's portrayed in raw, amateur detail as if captured from real surveillance footage, such as Joe's attack on the child brothel to rescue Nina.