Director/Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay
By Roderick Heath
Glasgow-born director Lynne Ramsay gained international repute with her impressionistic debut narrative film Ratcatcher in 1999. Ramsay cemented her status as a filmmaker to watch with her portrait of crisis adrift, Morvern Callar, in 2002, and her American film debut, the 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Ramsay’s cinema is distinguished by her visually dense and allusive approach, applying the style she developed in early experimental shorts to films that try to convey the interior perspective of deeply troubled and alienated characters who subsist within bubbles of disorientation. Ratcatcher was the tale of a poverty-stricken boy who nonetheless sustains an extraordinarily vivid sense of the world about him, alive to fleeting moments of imaginative transformation and eye-catching serendipity. Morvern Callar depicted a young woman eddying in a stab at self-realisation following her author boyfriend’s suicide, her recessive and childlike personality allowing Ramsay a natural zone to annex after her debut, before arriving at the would-be worldly antiheroine of We Need To Talk About Kevin. Morvern Callar was one of the most interesting films of the early 2000s, but I intensely disliked We Need To Talk About Kevin, which struck me as facile and more than vaguely exploitative in its approach to parental guilt and school massacre. It was also the kind of debacle only a director of great talent can conjure, showcasing Ramsay’s visualisations, and its general success greatly raised Ramsay’s profile.
Ramsay’s career has been marked nearly as much by the projects that have fallen through for her over the years as the ones she’s managed to get on screen. Her attempt to film Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones proved abortive, with the project eventually proving a fiasco for Peter Jackson, and in the past few years Ramsay wasted a good chunk of her new fame in an abortive attempt to work with Natalie Portman on the would-be feminist western Jane Got A Gun, which saw the light in 2016 helmed instead with stultifying lack of imagination by Gavin O’Connor. You Were Never Really Here, an adaptation of Jonathan Ames novella, marks a startlingly vigorous resurgence for Ramsay that also might be counted as a little revenge on her part, conjuring the film Jane Got A Gun might have been, taking on familiar generic canards with a fiercely quirky method and coming up with a hallucinatory neo-western blended with noir drama unfolding in the contemporary New York cityscape. Joaquin Phoenix is cast as central character Joe: he’s a figure perfectly suited to both the actor playing him and his love of playing damaged, semi-articulate screw-ups, and to the director, as another of Ramsay’s lost and childlike protagonists, subsisting in a hall of mirrors generated by his damaged psyche even as he brings potent adult anger and capacity for violence to bear upon the world.
Ramsay quickly announces her peculiar aesthetic as the film kicks off with a vision of bubbles swirling in dark water and two distinct voices counting down to zero, as well as the ritualised chant Joe recalls from childhood insisting that “I must try to be better.” The film slowly composites into definite form as we’re given peculiar visions – a young boy’s face, a mouth writhing under a sheet of plastic, a burning photo of a girl, a bloodied hammer, possessions on a bed scooped into a bag. Joe exits what appears to be a room in a hotel, and descends to the lobby, only to retreat at the sight of cop cars outside. He exits instead into an alley, where an assailant tries to beat his head in with a blunt object, but Joe shrugs off the blow and easily bests the goon. Joe gets into a cab, the livery of which tells us we’re in Cincinnati, and catches a bus back to New York. He enters a house there, which proves to be his mother’s home. His mother (Judith Roberts) is elderly, infirm, and a little confused, but still can pull off a joke as she pretends to be asleep only to surprise her son. Soon enough Joe is lost again in the minutiae of his idea of a ordinary life, like mopping up the bathroom after his mother, singing along with her whilst polishing silver, or reading books backwards and tearing out pages he doesn’t like, whilst occasionally seeming to debate suicide.
Joe’s carefully prophylactic work method, we learn, is designed to keep a layer of insulation between his home life and his current profession as hired muscle. He’s so particular about this he uses a grocery store owner, Angel (Frank Pando), as a middle man contact between him and his usual employer John McCleary (John Doman), and he decides to dispense with Angel as contact because his teenage son Moises (Vinicius Damasceno) has seen him entering his house. McCleary himself is merely an agent for hiring guys like Joe to pull off nasty jobs, often hiring Joe to rescue girls kidnapped into sexual slavery: when he comes to visit McCleary’s office, Joe finds it filled with flowers sent by the florist parents of the girl he rescued in Cincinnati. McCleary hires Joe for another job, this time one that promises to be very lucrative, as a Senator named Votto (Alex Manette) needs Joe’s special talents. McCleary is happy, boasting he can finally get his yacht out of dry dock and promising to host Joe, but Joe’s too distracted by digging for green jelly beans. Joe meets with Votto, who wants him to rescue his daughter Nina, who’s run off from home and an anonymous tip has told him she’s being kept in a brothel for high-roller paedophiles located in downtown Manhattan.
Usually when contemporary artists try to complicate the basic template of the lone avenging hero, they choose to load up the hero with quirks and neuroses that muddy up the white armour. Ramsay takes a different approach: although Joe is unstable and possesses a perturbing readiness to unleash punitive ferocity, he’s essentially an innocent, a small boy in a man’s body. Ramsay mimics Joe’s unmoored sense of time and focus with her filmmaking, latching on to random impressions and patinas, odd little details and fleeting spurts of conversation: attention deficit as a cinema aesthetic. Any sight seems charged with some semaphore of fate, like a girl staring at Joe from behind a pillar on the El. The reasons for Joe’s mental state are suggested in spasmodic flash cuts conveying the intrusive memories that can compel him at any moment of the day. A foot twitching in sand, a hazy face in a burka, two soldiers in uniform dancing in the midst of the desert, a candy bar handed over through fencing wire. These prove to be attached to specific, deeply disturbing moments in Joe’s life – one kid shoots another for the candy bar. When Joe is asked by some Asian schoolgirls to take their group picture, Joe recalls a truck filled with asphyxiated corpses of Asian women. The association so upsets Joe he goes to buy the wares of a drug dealer to lose himself in a chemical daze, and socks the guy for arriving late.
Joe seems to have served as both a soldier and a cop in his life (Ames book makes it clear it was an FBI agent), and the awful sights harvested in such roles have left him damaged, but they’ve also clearly also conjoined with traumatising memories from his childhood. Ramsay offers flash sights of Joe’s childhood efforts to drown out domestic rows between his parents by wrapping his head in plastic – a habit that seems to lie behind his current habit of doing the same thing to control strong emotions. Joe also recalls his mother hiding under a bed and a man, surely his father, sitting in the living room and stalking the house with a hammer. Small wonder Joe is now so protective of his mother, and this slowly past biography also gives grim totemic import to his weapon of choice in dealing with the miscreants his job throws his way, caving in their skulls with a hammer. When Joe sets out on Votto’s mission, he parks outside the old brownstone and waits for a young man who works inside to come out; Joe apprehends him, ties him up, pumps him for information, and then ventures inside.
Ramsay depicts Joe’s entrance into the den of depravity with the coolest of viewpoints, shooting his marauding through the security cameras around the brothel, in which he appears like a haggard ghoul lurching out of the shadows, smashing in the heads of the brothel’s guardians, leaving their bodies sprawled in his wake. Joe finds Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) on a bed, engaged in the same practice of counting down Joe uses in his anxiety control. Joe takes her in hand and leads her out of the brothel, pausing only with advice to her to close her eyes as he hammers a patron who stumbles into his path – Nina continues to watch with cool regard. Taking refuge in a car park, Joe has claw the girl off him with the assurance “You don’t have to do that anymore,” and then wait for her as she pisses on the bare concrete. Ensconced in a hotel room, Nina turns on the TV only for the news to reveal Votto is dead, supposedly through suicide. But it seems more likely that powerful enemies eliminated Votto for daring to claim his daughter back: two cops appear at the door of Joe and Nina’s room, blow the brains of a hapless bellboy across Joe’s face, and snatch away Nina. Joe manages to tackle one of the cops and kill him before fleeing, but he soon realises everyone in his chain of business contact is in danger. Sure enough, he soon finds McCleary in his office dead, having been viciously tortured until he gave up Angel, and Angel in turn is glimpsed being forced to watch his son being shot to pry Joe’s location out of him.
The theme of a rogue veteran out to help a sexually exploited girl invites ready comparison to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), complete with cracked hero and invoked junctions of street life and political climes. But Ramsay’s radically odd approach to such a plot better recalls a mode of filmmaking little-seen since the late 1960s and ‘70s, films like John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967), aggressively deconstructing the usually steely certainties of genre filmmaking, as well as art house benchmarks like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959) and Muriel, or, the Time of Return (1963), that tried to comprehend a sense of personal reality as a liquid state where past and present are always in dialogue, and the post-traumatic transience of mindstates mapped out in Sidney Lumet’s The Pawnbroker, with its kamikaze cuts to memories of bleak suffering. The emphasis on a hero experiencing the various stations of the cross constituting his life in the midst of exterior action that mimics existential crisis is reminiscent of Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971). Ramsay seems to nod to Boorman’s film at one point as Phoenix’s shabby, spacey hero nonetheless gains the impetus of mission and she shoots him marching forth, shoes crunching loudly on gravel, much as Lee Marvin’s Walker strode with purpose towards his reckoning. A scene of Joe pulling out a shattered tooth in nauseating close-up recalls Taxi Driver writer Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997), confirming she’s well aware of the lineage. The atmosphere in You Were Never Really Here is radially paranoid in a fashion that also feels rather fit for that era’s cinema, although it’s also starting to feel very apt again for ours as it contemplates a landscape of greedy potentates and human wreckage.
But Ramsay has so completely coalesced such influences, as well as the familiar touchstones of a thriller plot – the lone hero, the bad guy in a mansion on the hill – into her own peculiar sensibility that the whole deal emerges not as a compulsive work of suspense and catharsis but as a bad dream from which both the heroes and the viewer are trying to wake. Ramsay joins a body of filmmakers in this who have been essaying what’s starting to feel like a new subgenre, the dreamscape thriller, including Nicolas Winding Refn with Only God Forgives (2013) and Claire Denis on Bastards (2014), where traditional thriller imperatives are diffused through a sense of fractured and punch-drunk perception. There’s also a certain similarity to the works of the Safdie brothers, whose Heaven Knows What (2014) and Good Time (2017) similarly unfold with a quality of delirium and submergence with moments of sharp palpability, although not quite as overtly hallucinatory. Johnny Greenwood’s pulsing electronic score also recalls some of those film, calling to mind another cinematic realm, that of the down-and-dirty ‘80s thriller. Ramsay’s visual textures occasionally flirt with cliché – lots of hosepiping shots of freeways and cityscapes at night – but serve a coherent purpose in reinforcing a sense of bleary, blindsided experience. Ramsay uses Joe’s tale less to recount a traditional good-versus-evil narrative, but to explore the mental processes of the severely traumatised: Joe engages in his worldly action for much the same reason Ramsay takes up his story, searching for immediate avatars and ways of explaining to himself his compulsive and volatile experience.
Ramsay contemplates a network of insidious evil diffused through a surreally dense layering of perception. Ramsay’s dedication to exploring the mental landscape of her characters overrides familiar impulses here, as Joe’s travails become as much a catalyst for unearthing his own deep lode of distress as a call to arms. Joe and Nina seem to be linked on a subliminal level, threatening indeed to become the same person: although she’s the child and nominal damsel in distress, she’s also like the more coolly functional part of Joe, cleaved off from the great part of his being. This fundamental sense of recognition compels Joe to move beyond his own losses and track down Nina again. Ramsay is clearly fascinated by the close proximity of caring and violent urges contained within Joe, the sense that he’s carefully fashioned himself a lifestyle that allows him to unleash his potential for savagery at a great distance from the one person he cares about. His choice of the hammer as a weapon signals he’s well aware on some level that he’s dogged by the same brutal instincts as his father, who haunts his life, but also that he’s fighting with all his remnant sanity to turn it to a protective purpose, however debased compared to serving as soldier and cop. It’s a question that often compels filmmakers who tackle this kind of fare, feeling out the edges of humanity in extremes and wondering whether the faultlines between the very human states of anger, fear, wrath, revenge, and conditions like psychopathy can be accurately charted. Joe’s overt peculiarity finds its distorted mirror in young Nina, who like him drifts in a dreamy space after her rescue, regarding the rain-smeared windows of the car and the passing lights as if processing everything from a slightly different vantage on reality.
Whilst Morvern Callar conveyed the clammy sensation of intense grief, it adopted its heroine’s viewpoint rather than tried to describe her rather inaccessible thought processes, perceiving her travels in a state of bemused wonder. The technique Ramsay turned on We Need To Talk About Kevin successfully portrayed the blur of terrible memory dogging its main character. Here Ramsay blends techniques, alternating between Joe as distorting lens upon the world and as catalogue of sensations and recollections. It’s a high-wire act, aesthetically speaking, and yet Ramsay keeps walking that thin line with success just Joe must tread a bleak trail of carnage. The sight of his own blood mixed in with the white milk he pours for his cat sparks an alarm that drives him out to check on McCleary, only to find him dead, and he know soon killers will be at his own house. When Joe gets home and sneaks in through a window, he finds his mother already dead, shot in the face through a pillow. Joe hears the men responsible (they seem to be more cops, this time plainclothes detectives) and ambushes them, swiftly gunning them down. One of the killers (Scott Price) crawls into the kitchen with a bullet wound through his belly; Joe, in a vicious mood, catches him and presses the soul of his boot against the man’s back to wring information from him.
The killer reveals to Joe the even sicker truth behind the mission Votto sent him on: Votto and political confederate, Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola), shared paedophile tastes and liked to swap favoured girls, with his daughter offered up like some kind of bond-deepening pledge, a pledge Votto decided to pull out of at his peril. Ramsay pulls off perhaps her most bizarre twist on a familiar thriller moment here. Joe can’t really sustain the Dirty Harry act, slipping his bested foe a painkiller to help him die without too much agony, and lying down on the floor beside in him grief and exhaustion. The two men listen to the sounds emerging from his mother’s radio, still playing the chirpy sounds of an easy listening oldies station, and begin to raggedly sing along to, of all things, Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” whilst holding hands. It’s the sort of scene a director needs a hide of armour plate to pull off, but Ramsay swings it, in very large part because it feels like the essence of the film. The banality of a kitschy old hit is suddenly transmuted into poetic commentary on the knight in cracked armour and the emissary of an evil king both malformed into things they don’t like by life and longing to be children again; it’s Ramsay’s achievement to evoke the quality of empathy nascent in the most sordid situation.
By comparison, the actual climax of the film is a more muted affair, with Ramsay carefully sabotaging any hint of standard suspense as Joe tracks William to his house. In between, Ramsay follows Joe as he takes his mother’s body out to a lake in the woods, and prepares to sink her into a lake, intending to join her as he fills his pockets with stones. Ramsay turns this scene into her most surreal and gorgeous visual aria as Joe submerges himself in the lake with his mother and then releases her, allowing her willowing form to sink into the darkness, farewelled in a state of pure, liquid diffusion. It’s the most fantastical moment in the film but also the most sharply composed and executed. Joe however fishes the rocks from his pockets and resurfaces, following the shaft of light falling upon him. Why? Because he’s still got a job to do, fired up by the imagined – or psychically shared – scene of Votto serving his daughter up to Williams, and the sight of his mother’s sinking body transforming into Nina’s, a likeness of broken humanity demanding action.
Joe travels to Williams’ mansion in all its piss-elegant stature, where an eyeless statue hovering in the shadows seems animated by malignancy. You know Joe’s path by the trail of the head, leaving security guards with smashed-in skulls in his wake. Ramsay’s camera zeroes in for the excruciating sight of Nina’s blood-caked hands working polished silver cutlery to pick at food at the dining table, an equally gory razor close by. Nina, Joe finds, has beat him to the honour of slicing Williams’ throat, a discovery that proves cathartic for him in delivering him, ironically, from the need for further violence. Ramsay’s talent for inspecting the aftermath of violence is just as keen as ever here. Only right does Ramsay seem unsure what note to strike. She depicts Joe seeming to shoot himself in a diner after freeing Nina, only to reveal it’s another of his dreams, as Nina comes to wake him up and lead him off to whatever life they can find. There’s a point to this of course, even if the style suddenly feel heavy-handed. Joe will still long for oblivion even as he gains a new responsibility to fend it off, although just who’s taking care of who seems strangely blurred, as if Joe’s mother has been reborn in Nina, in a great chain of incarnation, parent to son to child, fending off the monsters. You Were Never Really Here demands admiration on many levels, for its blithe lack of concern for commercial niceties and ready audience participation, and yet still managing to be perfectly lucid in describing a state of mental and spiritual confusion.