With the latest film in her oeuvre You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay has revealed a royal flush to modern Hollywood. To describe the film as a thriller would be a gross injustice. Ramsay mixes elements of horror, both psychological and visceral, but fundamentally refutes any simplistic labelling of the film’s genre. It has similar bones to the excellent 2012 Drive, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, and 1978’s seminal Taxi Driver by Martin Scorsese. But that is where the comparisons end.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here delivers a somewhat simplistic plot: a US senator’s teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped, and a brutal hitman, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is hired to rescue her. However, within the first 5 minutes, Ramsay has spelled out that this is will be unlike any other film in recent memory, if not ever. The film opens in the aftermath of a “successful” rescue, with a precise set of close up camera shots that each inspect and linger on the various individual pieces of the scene. Ramsay is careful to never truly reveal all the details, leaving the viewer guessing as to what transpired in the immediately preceding seconds. All the while, one hears a gasping Joe, asphyxiating himself in a plastic bag, with fevered set of nano-second cuts to what appears to be a young boy screaming in Munchian anguish.
With this opening scene, Ramsay sets the stage for one of the most brave, exciting, and adventurous films of the last decade. Much like Refn’s Drive, the script has so few lines of dialogue that it probably amounts to only a handful of pages. Instead, Ramsay chooses to drip-feed some semblance of Joe’s history through the increasingly disturbing flashbacks in intense moments of his anxiety. Joaquin Phoenix as the unresolvably traumatised hitman is perhaps a career-best. He, in turns and sometimes all at once, frightens the audience with his intensity, commands the entire reserve of their empathy, and forces them to question the very nature of reality and what it means to be human. Similarly, in the little screen time she does get, Ekaterina Samsonov is at first a classic damsel in distress, kidnapped by a powerful ring of sex traffickers. Joe rescues her relatively early in the film, and the bond between the two is one formed from the morose beauty of two broken individuals supporting one another. However, Ramsay evolves Nina’s role, upending the stereotype set out in the first act. After being kidnapped again, this time by corrupt police, it is revealed that her father had sold Nina to a powerful politician to curry political favour with him, and Joe goes to rescue her from his mansion. The film ends with the reveal that Nina has already slit the politician’s throat, thereby saving both herself and Joe, in an incredible, beautiful anticlimactic twist.
Ramsay refuses to give the audience a sense of understanding. Her movie is so bare-bones and tightly spun that all 84 minutes of the running time are vital, with no space to think, no time to explain, and no air to breathe. The audience leaves the theatre knowing only a smidgeon more about Joe than is presented in that opening scene, and Ramsay only leaves enough room for the viewer to hypothesise. Ramsay’s bold message to Hollywood is clear: I owe the viewers no sense of cathartic release, nor any semblance of a bigger picture. This stance is derived from the time-honoured school of the auteur, and leaves the viewer questioning the fundamental nature of art. Does one deserve or even need to fully understand a piece of art to be moved by it?
Other than the sparse dialogue, the rest of the aural soundscape is either devoid of any unnatural noise whatsoever – a heavy and pulsating silence, or the sublime, nerve-shredding soundtrack composed by Jonny Greenwood, of Radiohead fame. Greenwood has turned out some of the most exciting film scores in recent years, most prominently during his collaborations with auteur Paul Thomson Anderson. But in You Were Never Really Here, he has composed a score that is fundamentally inextricable from the visuals. No small part of the visceral tension and anguish the viewer experiences is due to this pitch-perfect score that runs the gamut from throbbing percussions to high-pitched chalkboard-scratching drone to twinkling 1950s pop songs.
The cinematography of the film is superb – a decisive, steady hand in a bloated marketplace of the infamous “shaky-cam” school of cinematography. Much like the rest of the film, the cinematography is minimalist, heightening the very real horror and psychological elements of the world Joe and Nina reside in. You Were Never Really Here also has one of the most interesting title cards, in the form of the words popping up on the screen as a reflection of the mouth of a taxi driver singing along to an unheard song, an unaware getaway driver in the opening extra-judicial affair. Again, Ramsay shows the viewer the results, but not the context.
A curious side-effect of the Hollywood buzz machine around You Were Never Really Here is that it was touted with various allusions to its brutal violence. In actuality, this is a half-truth. There are scenes of an intensely nauseous kind of violence, but these are actually the results of some off-screen action. The viewer only sees the devastation that has been wrought from the inner brutality inflicted by other unseen players. The few fight scenes that occur tend to be relatively tame compared to the discovery of said effects. Indeed, this is Ramsay’s entire thematic thesis. We almost only ever see the aftermath in the movie, whether it is Joe’s PTSD, or Nina killing her would-be molester, or the most gut-wrenching violence (a prime example of which is the plied-open knuckles of a torture victim, split like an orange on a hot day). Brutality is less a concern for Ramsay than her real goal, to show the viewers a disorientating and harrowing look at the thriller genre.
You Were Never Really Here draws the viewer’s nerves and sanity to their very breaking point. Having stuck the audience on an increasingly tightened rack, the film ends with Ramsay walking away before she undoes her work, leaving the viewer lying there, wondering what the hell just happened. Ramsay has reminded us what cinema should be.