Boundaries of the Image: Mediated Violence in You Were Never Really Here
By Katie Elder | 11.03.2019
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun. He lumbers forward from his brutal past which continues to haunt him in the present, re-enacted in his everyday. At work, he bludgeons his targets with a hammer; at home, he suffocates himself with a dry cleaning bag while fantasizing about his own suicide. Lynn Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here (2017) is saturated with this violence. It is gritty, merciless, and uncomfortable to watch, confronting difficult themes surrounding the sex trafficking of young children, self harm, and the barbarity of assault. However, while Joe is constantly enduring and inciting violence, the camera seldom catches it head on. Rather, You Were Never Really Here mediates violence through diegetic images—that is, through images that are created in the story-world. Instead of depicting violence in a typical on-screen manner, Ramsey’s camera portrays physical aggression primarily through photographic images, mirrored reflections, security camera footage, and narrative allusions. Instead of a direct witness, the audience is given a second-hand observation of assault: an in-story translation of Joe’s violence.
Through her mediated renderings of violence, Ramsey harnesses the power and connotations of the image to call into question the impact that these acts have on Joe and those around him. Cultural theorist Roland Barthes understands the photographic image as having two meanings: “denoted” (uncoded, literal) and “connoted” (coded, cultural or historical) interpretations (Barthes 1977: 39). The denoted interpretation plainly captures and demonstrates what is in front of the camera, while the connoted meaning carries a “‘floating chain’ of signifieds”: an added message or analysis that a viewer must uncode (39). Ramsey provides the viewer with “connoted” messages through her unconventional presentation of violence, which paradoxically situates the action both beyond the boundaries of her camera’s lens and trapped within the diegetic footage. This unconventional depiction of aggression reinforces the act: through photographic records on screen, violent images are made permanent within the story world and thus imply a deeper significance. However, at the same time, the photographic record distances the viewer from the act of violence, and thus rather than presenting solely a realistic interpretation, functions to criticize aggression.
Susan Sontag, who was influential in her analysis of frontline journalism during the Vietnam War, discussed photography as a medium that captures images of war and suffering (Sontag 2003). In her book, Regarding the Pain of Others, she explains that “photographs objectify: they turn an event or a person into something that can be possessed” (81). Sontag affirms this early on, specifying “the photograph gives mixed signals. Stop this, it urges. But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!” (77). In You Were Never Really Here, the photographs that mediate violence do just this: the image both displays the pleasure of the “spectacle!” while simultaneously crying out “stop this.” By framing the violence in a second diegetic image within the narrative, Ramsey draws attention to the dual connotation of these moments; distancing the viewer from the denoted narrative as it plays out on screen, and encouraging that they question the implications of the picture.
One of the film’s most impactful instances of this is presented to the audience almost entirely through security camera footage that depicts a furious Joe infiltrating a brothel. Hired by a state senator to rescue his abducted daughter, Nina, Joe ravages the brothel, murdering several men within the house while in search of the young girl. The footage of the action is grainy and shot from the camera’s various birds-eye-view angles positioned along the brothel’s hallway ceilings: removed from the violence, occurring below, and rarely capturing the action head-on. Here, the audience is allowed a spectacle while Joe overthrows enemy after enemy, using his hammer to easily defeat each man in his path. However, the low-resolution security footage through which the audience is offered this violence functions to obscure certain details. Instead of glorifying Joe’s triumph and enthusiasm over defeating his opponents, the only reactions shown in close-up and not in security footage are those of Nina and the other girls in the brothel: drugged, scared, and abused. “Stop this,” the security camera footage urges. During this scene, we cringe as Joe’s hammer makes savage contact with human flesh. Often, we observe the horrified reactions of those on-screen rather than the act of violence itself. By framing aggression through photographic mediation, rather than portraying it in a conventional filmic style, Ramsey distances the viewer from the immediate story and draws attention to the connotated messages implied by the image. With this method, she glosses over the “spectacle!” of violent action that is glorified in other thrillers and instead formulates an image that begs “stop.”
The violence that is not directly captured by the camera, occurring beyond the boundaries of the screen, is coded similarly to Ramsey’s mediated images. Some of the most horrifying violence in the film — notably, the details of human trafficking — are implied but never shown. Similarly, at several points throughout the film, when Joe raises his hammer, the viewer hears the sound of the weapon’s impact but is denied a visual representation of the action. These horrors remain off-screen but nevertheless haunt Ramsey’s pictured content: they are ominous and impermanent but not visually realized.
Ramsey’s depictions are inconsistent with the typical action flick’s tendency to celebrate violence. When Superman suckerpunches a villain or James Bond fires his gun, violence is heroic, used to promote the greater good. Conversely, You Were Never Really Here refuses to glorify aggression on-screen. Instead, most of the film is preoccupied with depicting the pain that motivates these acts, or the suffering that develops as its consequence. When Joe’s elderly mother is killed by two assailants, we do not see the murder but observe its aftermath: a heartbroken Joe coming home to her corpse. Later, when he takes revenge on the killers, the viewer sees him fire his gun but does not see the bullets make contact with their targets. Instead, the spectator is asked to observe the grief, emotion, and trauma in Joe’s eyes; haunted by the many acts of violence actioned throughout the narrative. Each time Joe attacks, the image of his violence — reflected back to him in a mirror or seen in the security footage — captures these instances and translates them into a diegetic record. The surveillance footage records, digitizes, and stores these horrific acts, and they are made permanent not only in Joe’s consciousness but in the story world.
Interestingly, Ramsey only allows violence on-screen to exist without mediation when it is directed against the self. When Joe attempts to suffocate himself with a plastic bag, the audience observes it head-on; they are asked to witness the anguish that has driven him to such an act. The film’s final scene is similar in effect. Joe and Nina sit in a diner after their escape, eating lunch and planning their next venture away. When Nina gets up to use the washroom, Joe raises a gun to his head and pulls the trigger; his body falling limp onto the table in front of him, his blood splattering the restaurant and its patrons. Curiously, nobody reacts. The diners continue to chat, toasting their glasses and making small talk. The waitress, whose face is covered in Joe’s blood, coolly passes by his table, sliding his bill into the pool of blood that has accumulated beside him.“Whenever you’re ready” she adds casually. Joe’s blood seeps across the table while the world around him continues on, unaffected by his departure. When Nina returns from the washroom, Joe is asleep in his seat, unharmed, and very much alive.
Here, the most “spectacular” act of violence that occurs throughout the film does not really occur at all. Though the bloodshed is direct and unmediated, the audience is somehow denied a performance. Instead, the spectator is left confused, perhaps even concerned, as the story world continues on, refusing to acknowledge the “spectacle.” Instead of being glorified or heroic, sacrificial or illustrious, Ramsey once again removes her audience from the act in front of them and asks that they think critically about the implications surrounding this violence.
Sontag explains, “something becomes real — to those who are elsewhere [...] — by being photographed” (21). She argues that in a world flooded by non-stop media, images, news, and speculation, “each situation has to be turned into a spectacle to be real — that is, interesting — to us” (Sontag 109). Ramsey’s fakeout-diner-suicide cheekily acknowledges Sontag’s declarations, framing a world where in order to be real, violence must be mediated through the photographic image. Ramsey packs her image with two meanings: on the one hand, it denotes the spectacle of Joe’s gruesome suicide and on the other, connotes a criticism of this spectacle’s place in visual culture. Here, without the permanence of photographic recording, violence is displaced and unreal. Without media representations, physical pain is not experienced, however, the emotional pain and implications continue and become more pronounced as a result.
In You Were Never Really Here, violence is extra-spatial yet omnipresent, often occurring out of direct view but overwhelming the narrative nonetheless. By framing violence through mediated imagery, Ramsey draws attention to many of both Barthes and Sontag’s claims surrounding images of violence. She refuses to glorify violence and instead asks the viewer to criticize and question the implications of taking pleasure in such a spectacle. In one way, an image captures and denotes exactly what is in front of it, making its subject permanent, realistic and re-experienced in each screening (Sontag 22). In another, a denoted, critical analysis may emerge from the way that Ramsey frames violence; glossing over the spectacularized and glorified images of heroic violence, and instead leaving the viewer to grapple with the heart-wrenching illustrations. By relying on likeness to make sense of the violence, Ramsey asks the viewer to think critically about the actions that unfurl before them: at once there, at another instance, never really here.
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