dir: Lynne Ramsay
Such a title sounds like an admonition, a cold observation, a sad reckoning. It sounds like the kind of thing someone would say to an absent parent, especially, but I can imagine a bunch of other situations where someone could say it and mean it, too. You could say to someone “you were never really here”, and it would be an acknowledgement that even if that person was actually, physically there the whole time, their mind, their emotional investment, was somewhere else, focused on something or someone else.
If nothing else it emphasises absence over presence, and we can safely assume it’s not seen as a positive quality.
I cannot say that I entirely know what it means in the mind of the author of the novella that this is based (by Jonathan Ames), or in Lynne Ramsay’s mind, but the main character definitely has a lot on his mind, and if he’s a bit distracted, I can understand why.
Joe, as played by someone who clearly already has mental health issues, being Joaquin Phoenix, has a mass of mental health issues and an array of traumas from which crests a continued existence of remarkable precariousness. That’s a fancy way of saying Joe is so messed up I’m amazed he can get out of bed. Almost every action flick with a jerk at the centre of it has a tragic backstory where someone’s wife died or someone’s kid died, and they have to make up for it by killing a bunch of people in order to save some other woman or child. And then, when that’s done, they can be rewarded either by partnering with the woman, adopting the child, or dying, or all three.
It’s the standard screenwriting playbook, as lazy and as repeated as a Valentine’s Day card’s banal message. Is it really that different in the hands of Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay?
Well, do you remember what else Lynne Ramsay’s done? Do you remember watching We Need to Talk About Kevin? If you did watch it, do you remember watching it a second time? Could you ever bring yourself to watch it again?
I think not, but that doesn’t speak as to the quality of the films she makes. They are high quality and like no-one else’s films. Her approach is distinctive and amazing in equal measure (not really, but it seemed like the right thing to say at the time). They are definitely memorable, but the reason you remember them is not because of the dialogue, or the script in general. It’s because of the way she chooses to tell her stories visually, and how unsettling an experience it is to watch them. She finds the most distinctive but sometimes most obtuse ways to get her images and ideas across. And she wants you to remember her images, the same way in which the protagonist here can’t stop thinking about the horror-show going on in his own head.
Joe’s traumas begin early, in childhood, at the hands of an abusive parent, but he has also clearly seen terrible, truly terrible things in a time of war, and as an FBI agent, images that haunt him constantly, and now some of them will probably haunt us too.