By Noel Vera
You Were Never Really Here
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
LYNNE RAMSAY’s films as narrative features are, to put it mildly, problematic: they rarely unfold in the approved straightforward manner; are elliptical to the point of obscure; are dark violent disturbing.
And yet, and yet, and yet…
Her latest, You Were Never Really Here, recycles the hoary storyline of Taxi Driver (which borrowed heavily from Ford’s The Searchers), adds a splash of Beauty and the Beast contrast (the fiercely burly hitman Joe [Joaquin Phoenix] and the preternaturally beautiful girl-child [Ekaterina Samsonov]), plus a dollop of Psycho’s closeknit mother-son relationship (with Judith Roberts — still strikingly handsome 40 years after Eraserhead — as Joe’s mother); stir and pour over ice, drink, choke. The mixture does not go down easy.
There’s the suggestion of rampant political corruption (powerful white males jockeying for possession of loved ones) and possible sexual redemption (physically powerful white male — standard-issue representative of abusive machismo — rescuing feminine innocence); there’s even the suggestion of bestial martyrdom in Joe’s loneliness and suffering. A collection of clichés and tropes that were already dated when they previously appeared onscreen (see John Ford) all wrapped up and delivered to Joaquin Phoenix’s hitman for safekeeping.
Yet there’s this “don’t give a fuck” quality to Ramsay’s work, a defiant sense of using narrative as the flimsiest of excuses to hang images, sounds, textures, moods on the big screen for us to gaze at. Joe enters a well-guarded “playground” armed with nothing but a machinist’s hammer, batters his way in — you want to ask: aren’t the guards armed with guns? But Joe is unsettlingly fast. Ramsay shoots the sequence with shots angled and filtered for the images to resemble surveillance camera footage, and cuts in such a way that you’re a step behind what’s happening — first you see Joe’s silhouette rounding a corner, next he’s clubbing someone’s head down the far end of a hallway. Either you’re so disoriented the thought of firearms never occurs to you, or you halfway accept her conceit with a minimum of discomfort. Or you throw up your hands in irritation — but Ramsay doesn’t seem to care about that reaction either.
You think of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and how the sleekly understated Alain Delon manages to outshoot his adversary no matter how fast they draw (as with Ramsay it’s all in the editing). You also think of the claw hammer fight sequence in Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy which doesn’t cheat on editing (there isn’t any) and more convincingly presents its no-guns scenario (they only mean to beat the hero up) — but that was some 15 years ago and Ramsay’s take is a clever variation and update, monitoring cameras and all.
The sound design is equally inventive — Ramsay works from a background of relative silence — long sequences without dialogue and carefully designed ambient sound (you feel the dimensions of a room or hallway, from the barely discernible hum). You hear Joe’s steps, sometimes a hesitant shuffle, sometimes the tattoo of shoes running on concrete — the swift approach of God’s wrath. Sometimes Ramsay evokes a chill by taking away sound — when Joe assaults one brothel guard after another you don’t hear the hammer pounding flesh and bone, only occasionally catch the sound of a muffled cry.
Jonny Greenwood’s music — he did the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread — is equally spare here, and precisely placed. Absent from most scenes but when it is there — often when Joe is distressed — it’s effective, all panicky strings and discordant chords.
Occasionally Ramsay uses a bit of pop music and when she does it’s stunning: Joe has gunshot a man — possibly a secret service agent — who flounders on the floor helplessly, like a mouse dragging the trap that has broken its legs behind it. Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me” plays and first the agent and then Joe — who has laid down beside him — starts mumbling the lyrics. Treacly long-forgotten pop song improbably remembered by two men who have little in common, and the lyrics — about a woman who has done everything and achieved little — come back to them and us with unexpected emotional force (Why? Because!). Straying into Dennis Potter territory here, and if Ramsay almost immediately drops the moment and forgets it we don’t; we’re grateful for the moment.
Ramsay hangs all her romanticized notions about brokenness and trauma and mysterious guardian angels on Phoenix’s drooped shoulders. He’s Ramsay’s version of Cocteau’s beast fallen on hard times, the beard so luxuriant it could be an honorary lion’s mane, the big arms meant to give spine-cracking bear hugs (or snap a man’s neck), the skin mottled with bruises — Joe is Ramsay’s objet d’art on which she can splash and splatter all manners of filth and hemorrhage (carefully painted, casually shot), plus the odd shattered molar extracted with (again the sound design) a wince-inducing crunch. He has a paunch — he’s let himself go, and the flab is both reassuring and disconcerting; he can be a lazy slob like the rest of us, yet surprises us constantly with his strength and speed.
If we’re inside anyone’s head it’s Joe’s — the camera stays with him as he pulls on a plastic bag, his mouth sucking uselessly for air; it stays with him while a wet towel is draped over his face, and Ramsay inserts brief flashbacks (Joe’s mother hiding under a bed, Joe standing against a wall, Joe’s father stalking mother and son). We see other glimpses to his past (a sequence in Iraq where Joe hands over a gun to a youth, whereupon said boy shoots a fellow youth; a sequence where Joe flashes his light into a cargo container full of dead children — illegal migrants, presumably, who died in transit). We get some hints and suggestions as to Joe’s troubled relationship with his mother — it’s clear he loves her but she’s a reminder of his traumatic past and hangs round his neck like so much metaphorical dead weight. Later is a scene of letting go so out-of-nowhere lyrical that it takes your breath away — Thomas Townend’s camera shoots with dazzling shafts of light refracted through water and it’s like another world where suffering has vanished, gravity rendered meaningless.
The experience of watching the film may or may not come out a wash: we never really learn much about Joe, much less all the characters he’s come in contact with (his mother; Nina; Senator Williams [Alessandro Nivola] who we only see in fragments); we never get much more out of the film than the truism that powerful men are often murderous rapacious animals and any man with any ability to oppose them (oppose his kind in effect) is probably nuts for doing so. Ramsay seems to direct empty minimalist constructs with intriguingly seductive surfaces — but Oh what surfaces! I liked it, ultimately, but it was a struggle; if you didn’t — can’t say I blame you.