Two men lie on the floor, hold hands and listen to a pretty ballad by one-hit-wonder Charlene, “I’ve Never Been to Me.” This could be a pretty scene, perhaps a bit mushy, if those were lovers or friends or father and son – but no, those are two contract killers who had just done their best to try to kill each other. And exactly this makes this some of the best use of a song in a movie for many a moon.
But lets rewind. The film is You Were Never Really Here, starring Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hitman in a pitch-black movie where – and here’s a fat spoiler alert – he saves a young girl from a sex slave ring, but they hit basck when those powerful people do everything in their power to ruin his life. Like showing up at his house and killing his mother, the one person in the world he has an actual human connection with. There is something terrible about the killing of the mother, not for her sake, she seemed ready to go – but for our sake and for Joe’s sake. For our sake because the mother was the one light in the darkness in the film and for Joe’s sake because she was his last piece of humanity in this rotten world.
But the other two hit-men are still in the house, they are waiting for Joe – and after a shootout he conquers both of them. Joe is exhausted, lies next to one of the hit men who is not yet dead, but certainly dying, and they both know it. Where they lie there, one dying and the other exhausted, we hear the radio come on. A classic 70s ballad from when they were both kids, something their mother used to play on bright childhood days. I assume, I’m of a similar age as Phoenix and my mother used to play this regularly.
And they start humming along – and still it just feels like a very grim joke out of a Tarantino movie. But then comes a magical moment, down there in the misery. The dying hit-man hands Joe his hand – and he accepts it and they hold hands while Charlene sings. This is a song about a housewife who can’t go anywhere, sung by somebody that did go and got lost. It’s unclear who’s singing – but the song is certainly about them.
Sure, they might not have been to all the places mentioned in the song, but the lyrics of pop songs don’t work literally like that. They’re sometimes really just about a handful of lines, sometimes they chorus – and here the chorus is simply:
I’ve been to paradise
but I’ve never been to me…
Because those men have long ago lost their humanity – like the title of the film implies – you were never really here. Not really. You were just a ghost that made other ghosts.
But perhaps you were here once, for real. On those bright childhood days when you played on the floor while your mother played her tunes on her record player and you were not yet a soulless hit-man. And on a floor like that you feel life slipping away and you are finally home. And regardless of all their sins they can agree on the following:
Won’t you share a part
of a weary heart
that has lived a million lies?”
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson