Review: You Were Never Really Here6 September 2018
In Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature, You Were Never Really Here, Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a gun—or more accurately, hammer – for hire who specialises in recovering children from exploitation. His unusual line of work is tied up with his own traumatic experiences of serving in an unnamed desert war, and suffering through the vicious physical abuse inflicted by his father. The wages of violence take their toll, with Joe frequently tempting death by teetering precariously on the edge of train platforms, or attempting self-asphyxiation. Despite this death wish, when Joe is fulfilling a job his desire for self-preservation kicks in. Tasked with recovering pre-teen runaway Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), we watch Joe blaze through the brothel with his hammer via grainy black and white ‘security’ footage, witnessing the violence at a bit of a remove—perhaps not unlike Joe himself.
Ramsay’s method of delving into Joe’s subjectivity is by offering impressionistic glimpses of his traumatic memories; of dead children in a war zone, of a father in the throes of rage. These impressions are never contextualised through exposition, either within the contents of the memories themselves or through his present interactions. After all, we seldom mention our repressed traumas, or mull over the entire narrative arc of a memory—why should Ramsay indulge us with it here? Instead she melds Joe’s memories of the past with Nina’s traumatising present. Nina dissociates from her abuse by repeatedly counting, which becomes a sonic trace in the soundtrack to Joe’s memories. Nina and Joe are bound by their pain, which as we will discover only gives rise to further torment for the two of them.
Following her adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin in 2011, Ramsay has once again taken from pre-existing source material (Jonathan Ames’ novella) to project an utterly unique vision from the text. Like Kevin, Ramsay demonstrates a love in Here for strange aural juxtapositions and ironic musical nods, such as the most unusual visual to Charlene’s I’ve Never Been to Me that you ever will see. Her song choices are weaved into the pulsating, throbbing, jarring soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), and accompanied by a heightened, oppressive diegetic soundscape. The film has been compared by some critics to Taxi Driver, but the comparison is superficial—Ramsay’s filmmaking isn’t in the intellectual vein of Scorsese or Schrader, her films are richly sensory and impressionistic, so much so that dialogue and plot errs on the superfluous.
Ramsay never grants us a fuller picture of Joe’s past, and we are left with no idea of his future. After the plot unfolds, we abandon the characters at this uncertain juncture, oblivious to the fallout. There is no resolution, no closure, no justice. Like Nina and Joe, we are left dazed and bewildered, unsure of what is to come. You Were Never Really Here is no ordinary genre film, and Ramsay doesn’t offer any gratifying release to the tension the film builds. She allows the film to continue reverberating in your consciousness long after you’ve seen it. As the great Paul Schrader observes, the best films begin when you walk out of the cinema.