Friedrich Nietzsche once said that “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”. He very well could have been describing the path of two monstrous twentieth-century cinematic antiheroes: Joe in Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Oh Dae-su in Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy.
It’s admittedly an unlikely duo as far as double features go, and most would be quick to point to Martin Scorsese’s timeless Taxi Driver as the more fitting pairing for Ramsay’s latest feat. However, despite the fact that the structure of Paul Schrader’s 1970s masterpiece seems to mimic the 2018 Joaquin Phoenix-led release more closely, it is the echo of centuries-old Greek tragedy in Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here that makes it the perfect match for Mr. Park’s beautifully brutal Oldboy. Both movies, at their core, are stories about monsters trying to remember how to be men.
Oh Dae-su talks too much. Ever since childhood, his mouth has always been getting him into trouble, and now that he’s fathered a child of his own, the consequences of his incessant jaw flapping have come back to bite him. Without a word of explanation, Oh Dae-su is imprisoned for fifteen years, only to be released randomly one day with a suit full of clues. Thus the tale of his vengeance begins. Tattooed with tally marks and puffed up with rage, he sets out to find the man who damned him to a dank, desolate cell for nearly two decades, but he soon begins to question his new prerogative. As he says to himself in one scene, “I’ve now become a monster. When my vengeance is over, can I return as Oh Dae-su?” It’s a valid question, and one that he, along with his newfound companion, sweet sushi chef Mi-do, will explore together, as Oh Dae-su spends all of his time tracking down his tormenter, and inadvertently makes the move to life in a bigger prison.
In Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, Joe is trapped within his very own prison – a prison of the mind created by years of torment doled out by his father. As Joe grows older, he morphs from a victim into a buff gun for hire, but stays within the same psychological penitentiary that he’s resided within all of his life, constantly facing flashbacks to the blow of his father’s hand, and facing off against the deafening incessant voices in his head. When he leaves his mark upon his victims with his hammer, the voices quiet, allowing him moments of peace. Still, after all he’s endured, will he ever truly be free of the skeletons in his closet, the demons that come and call his name in the dark?
Joe Hill says in his 2010 novel Horns that “the language of sin is universal”, which makes it easier to understand how these two seemingly different tales of vengeful masculinity can be made into parallels given a certain amount of open-mindedness. Both Joe and Oh Dae-su are sinners, but they’ve been softened by the need to save a girl. Based on the Jonathan Ames novella You Were Never Really Here, Joe is hired to retrieve young Ekaterina and return her to her worried father, but something surprising happens. After he’s fulfilled his duty and called it a day, Ekaterina is once again stolen by other unknown stern men in suits and carried off without a trace. Joe’s job is technically done now, and, as expected once his brief distraction has ended, his ritualistic nagging fantasy of slipping into the big sleep returns to plague his once more. But this time, he’s found something to live for. In searching for the girl, he finds a reason to keep going. He doesn’t need the money. This time, the hammer will leave its mark free of charge, if it means stopping his new friend from experiencing the pain and anguish he’s felt all these years.
Likewise, Oh Dae-su starts out a sinner already, as his character is introduced as a drunken buffoon sloppily yelling at police officers while he waits for a friend to pick him up so he can arrive late and lousy with hooch to his daughter’s birthday party. Of course, he never makes it. Before he can return home, Oh Dae-su is snatched off a rainy street and tossed into a prison cell, where he remains for fifteen years. Upon his release, he tracks down the truth and learns that the man who locked him up, Lee Woo-jin, went to the same school as him when they were children. Lee Woo-jin was in love with his sister, and they carried on a secret romance until the day Oh Dae-su caught the young lovers in the act and spilled the beans to the entire school, planting a seed in Lee Woo-jin’s sister’s belly that would ultimately lead to a phantom pregnancy and her suicide. In addition to repaying Oh Dae-su for his crimes with incarceration, Loo Woo-jin has also played a trick on his old friend: hypnotizing Oh Dae-su and Mi-do and forcing them to fall in love with one another as romantic partners, when in reality, they are actually father and daughter. Oh Dae-su was ready to let vengeance consume him. He didn’t care if his path of revenge damned him to death. But now, everything’s different. He has a daughter he loves, in many confusing fashions, but all he knows is that he must protect her, he must do everything in his power to stop the knowledge from hitting her ears.
There’s a saying in South Korea that director Park Chan-wook often refers to: ‘You should never gift someone a pair of shoes, because they will use them to run away from you’. Perhaps that’s why so many of his movies, from Thirst, to Stoker, to Oldboy, to Lady Vengeance, all feature focused shots of feet and shoes. Symbolically, his characters are growing and changing, little traumas creating other traumas, and he displays this philosophical notion with hard, straightforward shots of characters physically growing up. There seems to be a similar theme in You Were Never Really Here, from the flashback scenes with Joe remembering lifeless feet of children that he saw while he was stationed overseas as a soldier, to a close up of Ekaterina’s white-laced toes as she’s being carried away from him by men with guns. Aside from the Badass and Child trope that movies like Leon: The Professional have made popular, these two films have a lot in common visually, as they both use repetitive imagery to drive home motifs, represented through a disjointed narrative that allows the audience to figure plot points out for themselves instead of being led by the hand.
Oh Dae-su says in Oldboy, “Even though I’m no better than a beast, don’t I have the right to live?” Ultimately, both movies are asking the same question – can a man who’s lived his entire life as a barbarian shed his trauma and return to the person he once was? The answer is maybe. Monsters can be made back into men if the beast is willing to lay down the hammer, admit the impotence of masculinity, and end the pointless violence once and for all – but once a man has been split in two, he’d be lucky to forget the maniac who smiles back at him in the mirror.