You Were Never Really Here

MO-JAI MCKEOWN reviews Lynne Ramsay’s psychological drama.

A fractured rumination on violence and revenge imbued with tangible feelings of regret and shame, Lynne Ramsay’s adaption of the Jonathan Ames novella is nauseating and captivating in equal measure.

Ramsay takes overt cues from Scorcese’s Taxi Driver in presenting her ashen, tormented protagonist, Joe, a former veteran and hitman for hire who retrieves young girls from sex dens in notoriously brutal circumstances. Wielding a hammer — as blunt a tool as any — he roams the murky streets alone, a sullen face doing unthinkable things.

In an industry inundated by troublesome films which posit themselves as introspective works on the nature of violence but ultimately end up glorifying it, Ramsay refuses to shy away from its consequences. The film is composed of a series of morose shots which convey the grief that violent trauma leaves in its wake. Rather than glamorising the violence, as so many directors fall into the trap of doing, Ramsay lingers on its repercussions to the point of nausea, making us stare at its reality. Rather stunningly, she does so whilst consciously placing a distance between us and the violence, staging each grisly scene so that there is a degree of detachment, for example by framing it through a collage of CCTV footage or by reflecting it through a mirror. By adding in this layer of perspective and filtering, Ramsay alludes to our exposure to violence in society, one which is mostly filtered through a screen and thus never engaged with, leaving us indifferent and ultimately desensitised. It is in depicting those after-shocks, rather than the event itself, that Ramsay forces us to notice that we are increasingly capable of stomaching violence simply because we are one step removed from it.

Image courtesy of imdb.com

Ramsay takes care to provide respite from the outbursts of violence with moments of tenderness. Most of these revolve around Joe’s relationship with his mother (Judith Roberts), for example a beautifully composed scene during which he wipes down cutlery with her whilst singing “A” You’re Adorable by Perry Como. These graceful moments pulse with emotion, which gains significance as Joe becomes increasingly incapable of experiencing it. Perhaps more importantly from a narrative standpoint, these extraordinary moments of warmth amongst the cacophony of carnage and pain highlight how deeply felt these violent outbursts are, and how they can never be normalised when placed against the humanity found in the rest of the world. Ramsay often follows up a scene from Joe’s repugnant underworld with a scene starkly reminiscent of our reality, such as the perfectly judged queasiness of a scene when Joe, carrying his death tools, is asked to take a photo of a gaggle of excited millennials in New York’s SoHo. Such scenes place his deeds in context, further removing them from normality and stressing the extent of the emotional damage inflicted upon Joe in his isolated world.

This is the predominant theme which seems to emerge from the film: the remnants of pain and trauma. It is perhaps most eloquently alluded to through the subtle recurring motif of Joe cleaning up and wiping away, whether it be the aforementioned cutlery, a soaked bathroom floor or blood splattered across the floor. Ramsay depicts this as a recurring ritual: Joe continuously attempts to scrub away the past but to no avail, as his inner turmoil bursts at the seams of his sanity, erupting before finding peace at the finale.

Image courtesy of imdb.com

At the core of this lies Joaquin Phoenix’s, performance, which won the Best Actor Award at Cannes. Joe is physically damaged as well as mentally — which Ramsay takes care to convey as her camera glides tenderly over his torn, battered body — and Phoenix is astounding in his ability to make that pain tangible for the audience. Joe is just the latest in a long line of tortured souls for Phoenix, from Spike Jonze’s Her or Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. He is the perfect lead for Ramsay’s vision, progressively crumbling under the weight of his conscience, guilt and sorrow festering within him.

Special attention must also be paid to the remarkable sound design of this film, a Ramsay hallmark which has defined her previous films. A collage of harsh, grating sounds populates the soundscape, building from feet on gravel to a passing subway train. Each sound helps to construct an aural landscape which becomes increasingly inescapable, every noise coming sharply into focus and allowing us to peek inside the fractured mindset of our protagonist, who can no longer ignore these harsh sounds. Accompanying this sound design, Ramsay has also gifted us with another Johnny Greenwood score, this one somehow bettering his sumptuous, paranoid career-best work on Phantom Thread. It is at times pulsating (à la Cliff Martinez), and elsewhere droning and paranoid in the vein of Mica Levi.

It is in the synthesis of all of these elements, overseen by Lynne Ramsay — who by now must be approaching auteur status, such is the ingrained nature of her unique stylistic flourishes — that the overwhelming excellence of this piece is found. This is a bracing, enigmatic portrait of a bruised man, and the toll that violence can take on the soul.

Featured image courtesy of irishtimes.com

‘You Were Never Really Here’ is on general release.