Why Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” Deserves a Second Look

Why Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” Deserves a Second Look

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Lynne Ramsay is one of the best writer-directors working today. Her attention to character is nearly unparalleled, and this film could not be a better example of that. 

Joaquin Phoenix plays a disturbed killer who lives with his mother in this moody psycho-drama character study reminiscent of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. If this sounds familiar, I should note that I am not talking about Todd Phillips’s Joker. I’m talking about Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, a film about a hired gun, Joe (whose weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer) tasked with recovering a missing girl. He uncovers a child sex ring, which might involve the highest office of government in New York State. The plot is as simple as that and is intended to be a backdrop to explore a character.

More than many films do, You Were Never Really Here speaks a cinematic language that doesn’t rely on dialogue to move the story. Imagery from Joe’s past and the context of his present life inform us that he and his mother were constantly abused by his father, who is no longer in the picture. As a child, Joe would hide in the closet and hyperventilate in a plastic bag, which is something he carried into his adulthood as he relives his trauma. Children who experience abuse can become stuck in a state of arrested development and in their adulthood tend to recreate trauma. Joe casually flirts with the concept of death. At one point he raises and lowers a steak knife into and out of his gaping mouth, a look upon his face like that a child would make when bored and entertaining themselves. His work as a hired gun is exclusively in service of saving children.

Joe is hired by a state senator to save his kidnapped child from an unassuming brownstone that operates essentially as a child brothel. Joe murders the guards and patrons with his ball-peen hammer and saves the senator’s daughter. They hide out in a hotel room, Joe is pursued, and the girl is taken back. Constantly on the verge of suicide, even when he’s being sardonically playful, Joe is serious about making an attempt to kill himself, but decides to take one last shot at the saving the girl first. Despite the film’s dark tone and brutal violence there is a real tenderness and, at moments, unexpected comedy. Joe’s abuse as a child informs his present self and led to him becoming a hitman. He needs to save this girl and he will not allow the perpetrators a moment to speak for themselves; his vitriol for their behavior is palpable.

Ramsay is an impressive voice in cinema. She uncompromisingly does things her way, which has given her the reputation as being difficult with studios. Difficult or not, she seems to be right. This film is artfully told with some things happening on screen that you know only exist in Joe’s head and others you’re unsure are real or not. It’s an exploration into this killer’s mind. In an interview with Phoenix, he revealed that on set he would wear hidden earbuds which played deafening fireworks. Joe always seems to be somewhere else. In one scene, he walks down the street and is asked by a group of women if he can take their picture. Normally, a person would say yes, take the picture, and continue on with their day hardly having been impacted by that experience. Joe is taken aback by the request and upon taking the picture has an internalized panic attack.

While so much is shown and not explicitly described or explained in the film, there is also amazing sound design and music. Joe is always off put by the world around him and Ramsay wants the audience to experience his point of view. The music plays goes off key or has a heavy synth underneath what would otherwise be light music. It is often discombobulating, bringing the viewer into Joe’s daily struggles and the innerworkings of his mind.

When going to check if his mother is still alive, Joe faces off with two men out to kill him in his own home. There is a scene when one of the men lays on the floor dying and begins to sing Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me.” Joe lays next to him, holds his hand, and sings with him. It’s in part a beautiful scene, but also so unexpected that I could not help laughing at the absurdity of it all. Joe can be unrelentingly violent, yet finds time to make a human connection. It’s sad because he’s so detached, but funny because it’s so out of left field that the comedy plays as much as the drama. At the end of the film there’s a diner scene. A character says “It’s a beautiful day.” The way Joe responds is a testament to Phoenix’s acting talents, especially his comedic timing. All Joe retorts is, “It is a beautiful day,” but the quickness with which he says it and the tone of voice he has contrast both the film’s bleak savagery with Joe’s mental instability and gives the film one last uncomfortable laugh.

Ramsay brilliantly tells a simple story about a complex character. Phoenix brings that character to life in a way that makes you question if this actor is actually crazy himself. But in all seriousness, as hard as some scenes are to watch, there is a true humanity to You Were Never Really Here that I think is hard to achieve given such dark subject matter. It doesn’t become a black comedy– it still adheres to the genre of a drama, but with a bleak and dry sense of humor. The visual storytelling harks back to the time of silent cinema, where action and story were all the indications you needed to be entertained and informed by the characters. While not doing well upon its 2017 release, I believe this film is one of the best of last decade and continues to impress me. It’s available on Amazon Prime, and I could not recommend more that you watch this film.

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