You Were Never Really Here (2017) | My Nutshell Explanation and Review

So I just watched You Were Never Really Here for the first time and, as per my usual routine, began cruising various internet forums and videos to see what others thought about it. And, boy, were those opinions varied. I even found one YouTuber who thought half the movie took place in purgatory (facepalm). Oh, brother. If it's not purgatory, it's split personalities. People really need another go-to theory. (Myself included, to be honest, as I've been known to land on those old hats myself a time or two).

In fact, it felt as if almost every interpretation of this movie that I stumbled across seemed a bit faulty in some way. So, knowing how much righter than everyone else I always am (shut up), I figured I'd drop by here and express my own opinions and explanation of the film.

It's late and I need sleep, so I'll try to make this quick.


You Were Never Really Here follows Joaquin Phoenix, as Joe, a PTSD victim who spends his days taking care of his elderly mother and his nights rescuing missing kids by hunting down and brutally killing the child sex traffickers and customers who've abducted and abused them. One day he's tasked with the job of finding a senators daughter (named Nina). As you'd expect, things go horribly awry, and Joe soon finds himself intertwined in a conspiracy much deeper than what he signed on for.

This isn't a vigilante movie though. And, unlike some have snidely stated, it's not an art house version of Taken either. That being said, it does have that "art-housey", slow-burning vibe, so if you're going into this wanting gritty, high-octane thrills and action, you're watching the wrong movie (try giving Mandy (2018) a try). Yeah, it's got some brutal and gory moments, but just because a movie shows T&A, don't make it a porno (as my mother always said). It's just not that kind of movie. What You Were Never Really Here is, is a warning and examination of the looming threat, and ongoing occurrence of child abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder; and the many negative effects this has on victims, both young and grown up. The poster child for all of those categories, in this film, is the character of Joe himself.
Joe was an abused child, scarred and beaten by his father, made to listen as his father beat his mother, and possibly even sexually abused (however, I don't recall if that latter bit is as explicitly implied). In the very opening of the film, we hear the adult Joe muttering to himself "stand up straight, only pussies and little girls slouch" and "I need to do better" as he inflicts pain on himself by smothering his head in a plastic bag (something he also did as a kid, in order to distract from his psychological pain). This is all in reference to that childhood abuse he received from his father, and how it's still affecting him to this day.

As a soldier, we see Joe give a candy bar to a young boy, only to instantly see another hungry boy kill the kid for the food. During his time as an FBI employee, we see Joe come across a truck full of dead young girls who were being traded on the black market. At a train station, Joe sees a bruised and battered hallucination of a young woman that's likely meant to be his ex-girlfriend who was mentioned in a previous scene (showing how the apple doesn't fall too far from the tree in broken homes, and how domestic violence is almost an inheritable trait).

Over and over, we see these traumatic memories invade Joe's mind, often triggered by the simplest of things (such as when he's asked by a group of girls to take their picture). Joe's experiences are a well-rounded source of pain that's made him suicidal, self-harming, extremely violent (even using his father's weapon of choice, a ball pein hammer, in his own violence), and especially sensitive to the victimization of children who are going through similar circumstances as he did. Through Joe's eyes, we're seeing the horrors done to children, the horrible people who do it, what those children grow up to be, and every other horrible outcome that results.

After everyone Joe knows is killed, Nina (the senator's daughter) is his last reason to live. He wants to save her from going through what he did and from growing up to become what he has. In doing so, as corny as it sounds, he also saves himself and finally begins to heal.

At the end, after rescuing Nina, when we see him daydream of blowing his brains out. I believe this is perhaps symbolic of Joe trying to let go of his past and move on. As if to emphasize this idea, Nina comments afterward about leaving to enjoy the beautiful day… and Joe agrees, showing us his smile for the first time.

All in all, I found this to be a pretty great movie once I began to come to an understanding of what it was about (in my opinion, at least). It's certainly an acquired taste (as most slow burns are), but, personally, it felt worth it in the end.