‘You Were Never Really Here’: Why America Loves Hired Killers

America has a strange obsession with hitmen, assassins, and hired killers. Sometimes they get called clever things like “the cleaner” or a “mechanic.” Pop-culture got it’s first real taste of this in Frederick Forsyth’s novel The Day of the Jackal (1971) and later, the movie The Mechanic (1972) starring Charles Bronson. Both showed hired killers as mysterious, glamorous figures. Clever men with special talents and skills that we should admire like a fine craftsman. In the last last thirty years, thousands of books, movies and TV shows have a hitman as a stock character. By the 1990s we’d already seen so many assassins that it was becoming a joke, and comic actor John Cusack played a hitman whose job depressed him in Grosse Pointe Blank (1997). The social awkwardness of murder as a joke continues to this day, and explains how silly Bill Hader can be funny in HBO’s new dark comedy about a hitman who wants to be an actor. It only works because everyone is so familiar with the character of a hitman that the role can be turned to satire. When a hitman or assassin movie is done with serious intent, we’re treated to the thrill of the John Wick films or Luc Besson’s The Professional. When we feel the actor is faking it, and could never be a top-level killer, we get the pathetically vain Sean Penn shirtless in The Gunman (2015) or Nicolas Cage running around Bangkok covered with a flop sweat n Bangkok Dangerous (2008).

How do we explain our weird fascination with this character?

The new movie You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix and written & directed by Lynne Ramsay from Jonathan Ames’ novel, offers a refreshing antidote to the ultra-competent avenging assassins or their comic counterparts. It shows us the emotional toll contract killing takes on one tortured man. Slick, stylish, and well-realized, You Were Never Really Here has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). But it exceeds Scorsese’s classic in both its brutality and the exploration of male identity and sexuality.

Phoenix’s tense performance as Joe shows an Army veteran suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and far deeper psychological problems. Joe is a troubled man who can’t come to grips with his repressed sexual desires. His emotions only surface in horrific displays of violence. He gets off on bashing people to death with a ball-peen hammer, a literal stand-in for his own troubled cock. He even cracks a craftsman’s delighted smile when he selects the right hammer for an upcoming job. But as with many kinksters ashamed of their kinks, the guilt he experiences in the aftermath of his orgasmic explosions of savagery is heavy. Suicide would make the guilt go away and once the violence is done, Joe spirals into despondency and black thoughts. The only thing keeping him alive is duty — to his mommy.

His sexual repression, the inability to express normal adult sexual desires, is made clear by the fact that he still lives with his aging mother as her caregiver. They joke together that Joe “hasn’t had a girlfriend in twenty years.” That’s repression, and Joe is conflicted. On the street, he’s an effective killer. At home, he’s on his knees mopping up mom’s mess. For cinema fans, the film references Psycho (1960) another movie about a sexually repressed man with mommy issues that are only relieved by murder. Joe’s inability to function as a real adult man is at odds with his appearance, visualizing his inner conflict. Joe is muscular and burly, with a manly lush beard; he looks like a blue-collar working guy, a carpenter or someone who does authentic labor. He’s the anti-hero who perfectly reflects the lumbersexual anxieties of today’s modern urban hipsters, oversize baby-men who feel disconnected from their masculinity by technology.

It isn’t a stretch to say that Joe overcompensates for his own sexual inadequacies with extreme acts of viciousness. Actually, that’s the whole point of the movie.

The sexualized nature of the professional killer is not new to cinema. You’ve got to really focus on another person to love them — or kill them. Killing, just like sex, is an invasive, penetrative act of extreme intimacy. The best of the Japanese samurai movies treat the katana sword as long steel cock that plunges satisfyingly into your beloved enemy. The samurai fawn over their steel blades with masturbatory intensity. So too with the American Western, where Colt pistols and Winchester rifles shooting hot lead represent cocks shooting semen and it’s good to be faster than any other man.

Hitmen movies are frequently rebooting the fantasy of the old cowboy hero, a sexually ambiguous outsider who comes into town to save the day and dispense justice. Westerns are always about dominating nature but first, you must prove your masculinity by dominating another man, or a group of men. Seen in this light, You Were Never Really Here is the Unforgiven (1992) of hitmen movies, reworking a tired formula into something fresher, more complicated, crueler, and non-sentimental. It even shares the same plot as Unforgiven: a hired killer rescuing whores from the controlling figures of authority.

The classic Western version of this tale is Shane (1953,) a seemingly innocent film about the mysterious cowboy who rides into a small town threatened by bad men. When Shane turns out to be a gunfighter, he gives up his anonymity and murders all the bad guys. But this act, at the same time, makes it impossible for Shane to remain in town after his killing spree, and he must abandon any possibility for love or a normal family. Because men, when they kill, are too dangerous to keep around. It’s the fundamental paradox of civilization. We want to be guarded by heavily armed, dangerous killers — but we don’t want to live with dogs of war in our homes. And sometimes your small town’s tough and protective sheriff is a violent psychopath, which serves the town’s interests at some moral cost. Unforgiven’s justice-wielding sheriff-psychopath is Little Bill Daggett. Only a vicious hired killer like Clint Eastwood’s Bill Mooney has the amoral ruthlessness to bring down a man in power. So too with Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe in You Were Never Really Here.

Refreshingly, You Were Never Really Here doesn’t have all the tired gimmicks of the hitman genre. No ninja costumes or spring-loaded daggers. There are no secret closets full of exotic weapons, unless you think of a hardware store as a secret cache of weapons. Joe doesn’t work for the mob and isn’t an ex-Special Forces operator. He was a regular G.I. Joe. He has no extraordinary training, no unique skills other than his fearlessness and ability to turn to raw savagery when needed.

You Were Never Really Here is not a fun movie and it’s not meant to be. And that’s the beauty of the film. It is a poetic study of how committing unspeakable acts of violence wears a man down to near madness. Director Ramsay presents us with snippets of flashbacks that aren’t put into context. A less-confident, more literal filmmaker, somebody like Ron Howard, would seek to explain everything. Not so with Ramsay. She lets her editing and the claustrophobic composition of her shots work on us. She grasps her scenes don’t need to make logical sense; they work best when their black magic needles us from under the surface. The viewer gets a strange unsettled feeling that builds as the movie progresses and doesn’t go away. Ramsay adds to the tension by having much of the violence take place off screen, in the margins of the frame, or seen through the black and white filter of video surveillance cameras. All are smart choices of a director in complete control of her movie. She tells her story in the language of cinema, not through dialogue or gratuitous shots of torture porn. It’s a very different way to show violence, in stark contrast to the ballet of blood spray you see in a movie like Kill Bill (2003). By presenting Joe’s barbarity in such a restrained, artistic manner, Ramsay captures the frustration Joe feels with his unmet sexual desires, and makes us feel the same frustration.

What are his sexual desires? There is only one time in the film that he touches an adult with any intimacy: he lies on the floor next to a dying victim and tenderly holds hands while the man bleeds out. They even sing a song together. It doesn’t mean that Joe is a homosexual, but rather, how much he craves any real human contact. Yet his psychological problems make it impossible for Joe to achieve the kind of intimacy he seeks. One thing is clear: Joe is into auto-asphyxiation, or ‘breath play’ as experienced kinksters call it. He constantly suffocates himself with plastic bags pulled tight over his head. The film never outwardly explains the appeal of this to Joe, but we are led to think what Joe really fantasizes about is the ultimate orgasm: the release from all the mundane bullshit of life. No more war. No more blood. No more mommy. No more nothing, in a word: peace. In the end, the ambiguities of You Were Never Really Here make for a fascinating, engaging, and truly disturbing film. As the title indicates, for all his hyper-masculinity, Joe is never really there.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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