“If she’s there, I’ll get her.”
Six years separate You Were Never Really Here from We Need to Talk About Kevin, and viewers would have to go back another nine years to her film before that, Morvern Callar. Thankfully, Lynne Ramsay hasn’t gotten rusty in that time. It takes only a few seconds into her adaptation of You Were Never Really Here to let viewers in on the fact that this isn’t going to be like most hit-man stories. Jonny Greenwood’s guitar in overdrive, steadily progressing from abrasive to unbearable, as Joe’s face bursts out of a plastic bag and onto the screen. There is a potent trauma involved in deciding to become a contract killer, and Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) has seen no shortage in this life. Abuse doled out by his father morphed Joe into a man who is simultaneously paralyzed by flashbacks of violence but also thrives on inflicting it. Too many films have lionized the down and out violent man taking down a corrupt system; Ramsay’s film is interested in more than going down those worn streets. She wants to dive into Joe’s headspace, where memory and consciousness overlap.
A lifetime of violence has left Joe drowning in the torment created by the professional demands that have been asked of him. Yet he doesn’t shrink from accusations of his brutality. When prospective clients ask Joe about it, he coolly responds, “I can be.” Joe is hired out to find missing girls, and he often finds them in houses of ill-repute. There aren’t any restraints placed on Joe as to what he does with the men that take these girls. Needless to say, they’re dispatched with swiftly, Joe collects his cash and almost everyone walks away happy. Rules and routine keep Joe out of harm’s way, and, unfortunately, work is consistent. This work does not make for a happy existence, but it’s enough to keep the bills paid and a roof over Joe’s head. All that changes when he takes a job from a state senator (Alex Manette) that goes awry.
To paraphrase Nietzsche: those who fight monsters should take measures to avoid becoming one. Killing is an ugly business, but, surprisingly, Joe is still capable of holding a hand to usher someone he’s killed out of this world. A tender act for a man who uses a ball-peen hammer to kill his victims. Few actors can affect an audience so profoundly as Joaquin Phoenix, even non-verbally, as his riveting portrayal of as Freddie Quells in The Master attests. A particularly haunting underwater sequence could have been laid on thick for posturing, but Phoenix reads the subtlety and performs the scene as quietly as asked. Phoenix’s portrayal of a traumatized veteran doesn’t necessarily compare to that career-defining work, but the part is as physically demanding as Quell and impressively just as compelling. With The Master, Phoenix had an elite ensemble to bounce off of, here, it’s solely his film and the camera rarely leaves him. Ideal, considering Phoenix’s face is a map of tortured anguish, each contraction a decision of how much of himself to restrain, playing both jailer and prisoner to his lapsing sanity.
Lynne Ramsay uses imagery to evoke trauma, eschewing traditional scenes where Joe would break down and explain his past to another person. Here, fractured memories are used to illuminate Joe’s history. Thomas Townend’s camera repeatedly lingers on faces in agony, drowning and trying to resurface into any sense of peace. The crown jewel of Townend’s shots comes after a devastating death, where Joe loads up on stones to fill his pockets and slowly submerges himself into a lake. Destruction is easy to lean into, but there is a beauty into continuing on. It’s clear from the results of Ramsay’s four feature films that she has a gift for the exquisitely unsettling. With any luck, cinephiles won’t have to wait as patiently before her next film graces theaters.
Associations to other films like Taxi Driver might color the perception of where audiences think You Were Never Really Here is going, but Lynne Ramsay cleverly swerves before long, tossing expectations to the proverbial wind. Even the violence–which a film with a synopsis this pulpy would seem to revel in–subverts audience expectations. Ramsay never dwells on the violence, instead choosing to rapidly cut between vantage points from different security cameras. In an even rarer approach, she foregoes the use of guns almost completely: Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. Making that decision is a refreshing alternative considering how often third acts devolve into a shooting gallery that abandons all the rich character work that came before. Ramsay pulls no punches in suggesting that maybe no one is saved as the film draws to a close, but recovery often seems elusive that way. Joe’s been served enough false endings to know they don’t do any good.