Warning: Massive Spoilers to Follow
You Were Never Really Here is the best meditation on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that I have seen at the movies. Unlike most movies that deal with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is never mentioned. It’s not even alluded to. You Were Never Really Here doesn’t have a lot to say about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but that’s because the movie makes the viewer feel the symtpoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The movie follows Joe, a hired gun played by Joaquin Phoenix, as he attepmts to rescue Nina, the daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto. As we watch, Joe, we learn that he’s been through a lot. He is haunted by a hallmark of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – intrusive memories. Intrusive memories are different from ordinary ones. “When people remember an ordinary event, they do not also relive the physical sensations, emotions, images, smells, or sounds associated with that event. In contrast, when people fully recalll their traumas, they”have" the experience: They are engulfed by the sensory or emotional elements of the past. … [they] experience something not as an event with a beginning, middle, and an end but in gragments of sensations, images, and emotions (Van Der Kolk, 2015, pg. 215)."
We experience Joe’s intrusive memories as he does; not as a coherent memory, but as an intrusion into the narrative of the movie. Take, for example a scene in which a group of Asian girls ask Joe to take a picture of them. Their smiling faces remind him of a past traumatic event, and a series of long shots turn into a pang of quick cuts - of a metal container being forced open to reveal a dead girl.
A promiment theory of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder posits that the “overwhelming nature of traumatic events results in disruptions in cognitive processing” during and immediately after the traumatic episode. The traumatic event is so overwhelming that the survivor merely observes, they do not – cannot, as a matter of preservation – engage with the event as it is happening. As a result, the traumatic event is never integrated into the survivor’s personal autobiography. When memories of the event surface through intrusive memories, the survivor may then exhibit a continued emotional numbness as a means of avoiding the traumatic memory.
We experience Joe’s emotional numbess, just as he does. In order to rescue the New York State Senator’s daughter, Joe must himself commit horrific acts of violence. But Director Lynne Ramsey removes us from the violence. Take the sequence in which Joe rescues Nina from her kidnappers. Joe bludgeons multiple men with a hammer, but we only see the violence through CCTV footage.
We even see the formation of a traumatic memory that is sure to haunt Joe. The cops come to Joe to attempt to kidnap the daughter of the Senator. The sequence starts with a long shot of Joe. He talks slowly, the camera focuses on him. But he can’t process the episode. He has to act. And as soon as he does, we are presented with a shaky camera; we can barely keep track of the action until the end, where we watch Joe through a broken mirror as he strangles the cop. Like Joe, we are removed from the event as it happens.
For more information about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, see https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/post-traumatic-stress-disorder-ptsd/index.shtml
Author Sam Portnow