“Where are we going?”
“Wherever you want to go. . . . Where do you want to go?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know either.”
In Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho, a past-haunted man cannot escape himself or the violence he has known and inflicted, and he preserves his own guilt and trauma, literally, in the body of his mother. He could not bear to live with her and the man she called her husband, and so he killed her. He could not bear to live without her, and so he keeps her, tucked in her bed, a “boy’s best friend.” It’s an impossible, stunted existence, an embalmed life, where the dead cannot be buried, and it is a life that splits Norman Bates’s identity in two. His body becomes a sort of prison, a site of ever-present struggle between two selves, between life and death, past and present. “We scratch and we claw,” Norman says, “but only at the air, only at each other, and for all of it, we never budge an inch.”
Lynne Ramsay’s newest film, You Were Never Really Here, beautifully recalls this earlier cinematic classic both overtly and obliquely. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a war veteran, a sort of walking dead man like Norman Bates. Joe carries the suffocating horror of his past around in his scarred body while violent images of that past crash, unbidden, into his mind, disrupting his path in any given moment. The voices of the dead, too, and of his younger self force themselves into his ears. His is a divided existence, and his body contains a mind that won’t obey him. “What am I doing?” he mutters to himself when one of these images or voices shatters his attention and a task at hand. He is often, then, cut off from the world around him, the trauma of his mind wrenching him towards itself and away from an exterior, Other reality.
While Ramsay gives us stark, brutal reminders, often in close-up, of the solidity of Joe’s body, a body that has suffered or is suffering, Joe is, still, a faltering being, a kind of traveler who can’t find a home. His very image flickers in front of us as vehicles rush past in the foreground of the frame and we strain to see him in the background, beyond the rush of street traffic. And even the thin sound of shrieking train wheels and the low rumblings of the cars on a highway which fill the world of the city in which Joe walks are sounds that seem extensions of the constant clamoring in Joe’s mind. Ramsay, as she has done previously, particularly in We Need to Talk About Kevin, fills the world of the film with images and sounds that constantly challenge our sense of reality; we question, at turns, what we see and hear since our protagonist’s traumatized, fractured mind shapes the story. Other damaged and waiting travelers slide in and out of the frame of Joe’s world; they are perhaps the only kind of world he can see through the lens of his experience: figures seated with patiently impassive faces at a station, a sleeping man in a hotel lobby, the bruised face of a woman by the train, a blank-faced woman lifelessly draped across chairs at the airport.
And then there’s Joe’s own mother (Judith Roberts), a real Other but broken herself, her presence suggesting a living, if tenderer, version of Psycho’s Mrs. Bates, keeping company with Joe in their family home. Joe and his mother’s relationship is a gentle one – Joe sits with his mother in the dark while she falls asleep in bed, having been frightened by Psycho on TV; Joe patiently towels up the flood she creates in the bathroom (a more innocent version of Norman Bates’s gory task); and the two sit together, companionably polishing the family silver and singing an alphabet song they both know.
But the relationship is an uneasy communion, not one to ease the violence of Joe’s mind and root him to solid earth. A shared family history and trauma unites them, and for Joe, his mother is an embodiment of that past pain. To live with her, to live in their family house, is to live in and with his past and the violence and the terror of that. In one of those abrupt intrusions into Joe’s mind, Ramsay pushes us with Joe into his past, into the family’s house as it was, containing his young mother. There are the stair railings he crept behind as a boy, peering out at her prone figure on the floor and at the hammer dangling from his father’s grip. There is the closest in which he hid as a boy, covering his face in dry-cleaning plastic and counting down to block out his mother’s screams. The hateful green interior walls of the house are there, too, a ghostly Vertigo-green, disrupting anything like a vital present existence.
Vain attempts to clean this haunted house are false starters; even ancient cottage cheese in the fridge is something Joe’s mother insists on: “I use it. Just leave it.” And so Joe leaves it, and, in any case, he can’t clean out his mother. She, though a reminder of past horror, is also what binds him to life – and her cries of “Joe!” when she needs him, rip him, resigned, away from the suffocating suicidal plastic he breathes into or away from the knife he pushes down into his open throat.
Still, Joe does not stay at home like another Norman Bates, with this mother who binds him to both life and death. Joe is also like, perhaps, a Travis Bickle, another tortured war vet of cinema, who makes attempts at escape and redemption and who does it through violence. For, like Bickle, Joe copes with the living ghosts of his pain by acting out the past violence of his haunted mind on the abusive men of the present, sordid world. Reclaiming his father’s weapon of choice, a hammer, and making an arguably retaliatory effort to batter back and punish the past, Joe methodically goes about his mission, a mission to rescue missing, kidnapped girls, girls that, unlike his brutalized young mother, he can now save. He is good at it, too, wielding his hammer with an efficiency Phoenix’s shambling embodiment of Joe belies and leaving a sudden trail of broken men in his wake.
Notably, Ramsay evokes violence while showing very little actual violence. The center of our focus is Joe’s mind, a mind which retains the effects of horror and violence, and so it is almost always only the effects of violence, past or present, that we see, too, not the bloody acts themselves (except in a one defining moment, which, when it arrives, may be only the bodily vision of Joe’s imagination). In one scene, Joe shoots would-be assassins, but the deaths are off-screen; we remain with Joe and with the half of his face we can see in the frame, as he reacts to the shots he fires and to the death and injury he inflicts. In another scene, it is a bank of security cameras flipping between hallways that reveal Joe’s work: rapid cuts, an oblique, high angle, black and white vision. Here, Joe’s quick movements are just off-frame, or an abrupt cut gives us a raised hammer without the blow, or there’s an empty hallway but for one pair of legs crumpled just at the top of the screen.
Like Ramsay’s framing of the violence, which puts the focus on Joe’s psychology, her musical choices, too, for the soundtrack, perfectly complementing Johnny Greenwood’s stunningly evocative and unsettling score, keep our attention on Joe’s state of mind. The music swings unnervingly between diegetic and non-diegetic states. In one scene, a cabbie begins to sing – to what we thought was Greenwood’s score but what is perhaps, instead, the radio. Is he singing, or is this Joe imagining him singing to or for him? In another scene, Joe stalks hallways, looking for a kidnapped girl being held by sex traffickers, and Rosie and the Originals croon “Angel Baby” – “It’s just like heaven being here with you / You’re like an angel, too good to be true” – a tinny sound that seems to reverberate, alternately loud and soft, as Joe walks. Is this ironic, blackly comic, blast from 1961 actually being played in the hallways? It is unclear what Joe hears or thinks he hears. The sense of swinging between soundscapes forces us into the kind of disorientation and dislocation Joe experiences, and that hovering between mind and reality sustains itself through to the end of the film, where we are left, finally, with a question of what is real and what is not.
Ultimately, for Joe, as once-clear missions of rescue fold into chaos, as once-efficient executions of violence spin out of control, and as the tenuous death-life in which he exists becomes even more pressured by particular deaths, the question becomes how many more times he will claw the suffocating plastic from his face for his mother – or for someone else. A countdown into oblivion and final forgetfulness may at some point seem the only path, and the song Joe hears on the radio “The Air That I Breathe” will serve only to underscore the bitter irony.
I am not sure Ramsay offers us the definitive answer of Joe’s final state, his final reality. The film’s visual and sonic bookends are striking and tempt us towards an answer: the film opens on water, bubbles like someone’s breath rising to the surface; it opens with the frantic high pitched sound of travel, cars along a motorway, then an airplane engine or train whistling along its tracks – and labored breathing, a verbal countdown. It ends (and given the nature of the film, I do not believe this is a spoiler) on an empty restaurant booth and the sounds of soft, overlapping voices, mundane conversation, evidence of lives living on. Perhaps Joe, by the end of the film, has re-entered life, left his suffocating stasis state between life and death, left the violent images and voices in his head, and joined the conversation. But perhaps, too, the conversation does not include him, and instead, it passes over and around him, as if around a ghost who cannot speak.
Whatever the case, two distinct moments from the mid-point of the film will stick with me and seem to me to define something essential about the film, about Joe, and perhaps about our shared humanity that indicates to me the ending does not really hold the “what’s real?” answer I need. In one of the moments, Joe carries Nina, a kidnapped, now rescued, girl on his back, a burden he trudges forward with, willingly, ungrudging, but it is, in fact, a trudge. There is no fanfare or heroism here, just a steady resolve to keep going. In the second case, Joe keeps a dying man company as he lies on a kitchen floor; the man murmurs out the lyrics to a radio song and Joe, joining him, sings softly along. In his last moments, the man reaches out his hand for Joe’s, one final grasp.
It is that onward trudge, the mundane song, and that grasp. Perhaps those things, in the midst of this death in life world, they are reality enough.
You Were Never Really Here opens in Seattle on April 20.