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Rather ironically opening in the UK in the same month as a film in which Joaquin Phoenix plays Jesus, You Were Never Really Here plays like a series of glimpses into hell, the psyche of a deeply traumatised man echoing throughout the film. Here, Phoenix plays Joe, a former military man who rescues kidnapped young girls from sex slavery. As with her previous work, Lynne Ramsay leaves her cinematography and editing to do any heavy lifting that the narrative calls for, the richest and most telling moments always coming in the form of an image rather than a line of dialogue.
In You Were Never Really Here, dialogue is instead used as a weapon to disorientate more often than it is to provide clarity. While there is minimal dialogue, sound is still crucial. As the film opens from blackness, the first thing we hear is Phoenix’s voice berating himself in a ritualistic chant which recurs throughout the film. Framing and editing gives us the most insight into the interiority of her characters. This inspires restrained, physical performances from her leads - Samantha Morton in Morvern Callar, Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin being the best and perhaps the most beguiling examples. These performances are more about interiority rather than being transparent.
Instead, emotions are conveyed through the camera and non-diegetic sound. Because of this, Phoenix’s mostly stoic presence becomes something to decipher through this visceral barrage of information. There’s less exposition to listen to, and more images to unpack. Across a lot of Ramsay’s work, grief is interpreted as a powerful visual and auditory force, manifesting in fragments that are constant and unsettling. Ramsay opens the film with a flurry of seemingly disconnected images, the true significance of which becoming apparent much later in the film. We’re then introduced to Joe as he cleans up after a hit, Ramsay bringing the camera in close for every minor, grisly detail; one of the first shots being the end of a hammer covered in blood and hair. Jonny Greenwood’s score compounds the nightmarish feel of the scene, a cacophony of guitars layered over one another plays as he leaves the scene.
Joe’s past is represented not just through these flashes of sound and image however. Another notable sign of the grief he carries with him can be seen in his weapon of choice - a ballpoint hammer, ‘made in the USA’. We see through brief flashbacks that his father used one too, against Joe and his mother. The very fact that he has opted for this weapon is a sign of the trauma that fuels his drive towards violence; it’s a relic of his past that he can’t seem to get rid of. The film never revels in this violence, often cutting away or displaying it through a filter. The moments we do see are upsetting, visceral, and mostly concerned with the result than the action that causes it. The film’s hesitance to show this violence feels like an extension of Joe’s psyche, haunted by the ugliness of these actions.
Scenes that might make an action set piece in other movies are obscured here, the longest taking place entirely through CCTV monitors. As the film goes on, this hesitance to show violence in tandem with the hallucinatory sound and flashes of images from Joe’s past begins to paint a picture; of a man whose abusive childhood has stayed with him. Joe’s appearance itself tells a story; he’s a haggard, heavily built (but not sculpted) man, covered in large scars that we never hear about, but we know what they mean - violence has always been a part of his life. This is a prominent trend throughout Ramsay’s films, as we are introduced to characters through close-ups of their appearance and actions, letting us see who they are before we even see their face.
You Were Never Really Here may share the most connective thread with what’s probably Ramsay’s most well-known work to date, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Another tale of rage and trauma, adapted from a novel and accompanied by a Jonny Greenwood soundtrack, Ramsay explores the complicated relationship between Eva (Tilda Swinton) and her psychopathic son Kevin (Ezra Miller). The same obscurity seen with Ratcatcher’s sense of time is compounded here, as the film switches between the past and the present without warning, as if Eva is stuck between the two following the massacre Kevin committed at his school. With these two films, grief and violence intertwine as a link between the past and the present.
Lynne Ramsay’s style is unmistakable and singular, and You Were Never Really Here shows no signs of her slowing down, her common themes and style effortlessly bleeding into new contexts. Her films always resist the urge to turn subtext into text, trusting the audience to piece together the experience for themselves. Because of this, her work always feels rewarding in a way that very few films often do.