There’s nothing in You Were Never Really Here that you haven’t seen before — but as the saying goes, it’s not always what your story is that matters but how you tell it; we’ve never seen Lynne Ramsay tell this story, and her perspective gives it new dimensions. Ramsay’s conception of the damaged male psyche is on a continuum with The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards and Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle — like those anti-heroes, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has been shaped by conflict. But instead of violent colonization of the American West, or combat in the Vietnam War, Joe’s experience with conflict, though it goes ultimately unspecified, is presumed to be related to time spent fighting in the Middle East. Joe is a muscle-for-hire who’s employed to rescue a young girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from a child sex trafficking ring. An important detail: while shopping for tools before his rescue mission, Joe goes to pick up a ball peen hammer. Ramsay lingers on the tool, stamped “Made in America”; in short order, Joe will bash in several skulls with it. A walking signpost for toxic Americana, Joe is corrupted naivety turned violent. In an interview with Film Comment’s Jonathan Romney, Ramsay characterizes this condition as “masculinity in crisis,” saying of Joe that “he can’t save himself, he can’t even kill himself – but then you start seeing it as a sort of Lazarus story, about a guy who doesn’t want to exist, coming back to life in some way through trauma.” Joe is a character in deep conflict with himself, who at the same time reflects something dark and disturbing about society, and the way it enables him.
The violence largely takes place offscreen, or is alluded to, or is filtered — shot through shadows, or mirrored surfaces, or in abstracted, extreme closeups.
It’s too reductive to say that Ramsay brings a ‘feminine touch’ to a typically masculine genre. But it would also be a mistake to discount the role of femininity here. Ramsay wants to show violence without wallowing in it or explicitly celebrating it (charges frequently lobbed at Taxi Driver, as well as a million Death Wish wannabes). The violence in You Were Never Really Here largely takes place offscreen, or is alluded to, or is filtered — shot through shadows, or mirrored surfaces, or in abstracted, extreme closeups. We do see the aftermath of violence, and that’s important. We see Joe cleaning up bodies and tending to wounds, his scarred, battered body a litany of past abuses, a kind of literal ‘body horror.’ We see how Nina reacts to violence, clearly traumatized and in shock. Ramsay delves into Joe’s tragic backstory with elliptical fragments, somewhere in-between the sharp, jagged, crystalline structure of Resnais’s Muriel and the softer, more sensual textures of Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Ramsay’s editing rhythms are complimented by Johnny Greenwood’s mesmerizing score, full of luminous, gentle passages that jerk suddenly into thumping beats or sharp, cacophonous, and dissonant chords. Melody and chaos intertwine in an audio-visual tour through a disturbed mind — one that wants to do good, but only knows how to affect change through violence.
You can currently stream Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here on Amazon Prime.