Director Lynne Ramsay never has been one to comprise the brutality and dark vision of the films she makes. It’s almost as if Ramsay (Ratcacher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin) dreams her films, and Ramsay’s dreams tend to be nightmarish.
Adapted from a 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames, Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here hangs a series of unnerving sequences on a conventional spine: A hit man accepts a mission in which he must save a teenage girl from a life of child prostitution. As is sometimes the case with dark fables, You Were Never Really Here shows no great interest either in by-the-book expressions of plot or character development.
Instead, Ramsay takes the viewer on a visual journey in which standard elements are more suggested than spelled out. Early on, we see an image of a man with a plastic bag over his head. Are we watching a murder? A suicide? Some weird act of erotic asphyxiation?
The answer: None of the above. Later, we learn that we've witnessed the re-enactment of a bizarre childhood ritual on the part of Joe, the movie’s strange and scary main character, rendered with brute physicality by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix seems to have enlarged himself to a point where we half wonder whether he has borrowed Gerard Depardieu’s body to play a bulky hitman who specializes in beating his prey with ball-peen hammers.
Hidden behind a thick beard, Phoenix turns the near silent Joe into the movie’s essential mystery. Using quickly inserted images, Ramsay lets us know that Joe was an abused child and a traumatized former Marine. Neither of those facts -- if that's what they can be called -- explains much about Joe, a character we’re presumably meant to accept as an existential expression of the ways in which brutality and a sense of righteousness can turn an individual psyche into a war zone.
Joe's profile hovers halfway between that of a serial killer and a fierce defender of abused girls.
Everything about Joe speaks of brooding obscurity. He lives with his aging mother (Judith Roberts) in a ratty apartment. He has no friends. He tries to smash the demons that feed on him, assaultive images that explode inside his head with the force of detonated grenades.
If you're looking for a social dimension, I suppose it’s possible to take Joe as a manifestation of the worst of a corrupted society, almost a socially induced mutation.
In that regard, Joe evokes memories of Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle, and the movie’s story, like Scorsese's dark masterwork, also dips into the political life of New York City. A New York state senator (Alex Manette) who wants to run for governor hires Joe to rescue his 13-year-old daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a ring of sex traffickers.
The movie’s conflation of politics and seamy degeneracy isn’t fully explored and the plot unfolds in somewhat muddled fashion. One presumes that little about You Were Never Really Here should be taken literally. Put another way, if you examine the developments in You Were Never Really Here, they don't always make sense. But Ramsay’s visual style sustains an atmosphere of suggested terror, punctuated by vivid imagery from cinematographer Tom Townsend.
An example: At one point, we see Joe underwater in the midst of a suicide attempt, floating silently toward oblivion.
There are also moments that challenge — perhaps too self-consciously — expectation and are meant to add splashes of weird humor. After a violent episode, Joe lies on the floor with one of his dying victims. They sing along to I’ve Never Been to Me, which happens to be playing on the radio.
In one of the movie’s most gripping sequences, security cameras record Joe going about his awful business, hammering away at anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing him at work.
Watching You Were Never Really Here, I couldn’t help marveling at the combination of daring and commitment it must have taken to make a film such as this, one that has little interest in reassuring an audience. If You Were Never Really Here is a nightmare, it’s one from which Ramsey doesn’t seem to want us to awaken.
She's greatly aided in her efforts by a score from Jonny Greenwood, perhaps the most innovate movie composer working today.
A nagging question, of course, arises: Why are we watching this? What edification can be drawn from this gleaming, alienated work? Ramsey, you should know, does not employ her considerable skills in the pursuit of visual pleasure; her aesthetics derive from trying to live inside the emotional worlds of her characters.
Let's say the jury is out on what all of this means. Maybe Ramsey has delivered a movie that’s more sketch than fully developed canvas, that she’s wandering in this territory without a map. I guess you could say that’s both courageous and crazy. And that description pretty much describes You Were Never Really Here for me -- at least until I see it again.