You Were Never Really Here is Lynne Ramsey’s first film in five years, since the Scottish auteur’s adaptation of We Need to Talk About Kevin. That film’s sensory overload could not quite escape the problematic ideas of Lionel Shriver’s source novel, but it gave the director a greater following than her previous Scottish-set films had. This time around, she’s taken the bones of a fast-paced Jonathan Ames Noir novella; a perfect choice as a melting pot for the kind of elevated pulp that gifts recent films like Good Time, The Handmaiden, and Personal Shopper with the drive to balance their art-house leanings.
Joaquin Phoenix, a physically verbose actor with a stunning ability to transformatively inhabit characters while retaining something of a star persona (he always reminds me of Depardieu in the 80s), plays Joe, a mercenary with a specialism in saving abducted children from sex trafficking. At a lean 90 minutes, but with a plot that amounts to a fraction of that time, we are immersed into Ramsey’s unique cinema style in a way that may reveal more of her soul than Joe’s. Phoenix’s unmistakable, reliable presence for the art-house crowd must contribute in some part to films like this, not to mention Garth Davis’ tiresome Mary Magdalene, getting made at all.
But his portrayal of Joe is Phoenix by numbers. A little loud, a little mumbly, all presence, the film’s sensuality never allowing for Phoenix to exhibit the character’s psyche in a more illuminating way than we might find in a Death Wish. It is the style upon which Ramsey want us to rely for that depth. There are a few frames which operate as brief flashbacks to past traumas. But these scenes of the Iraq war and domestic abuse are so underdeveloped as to amount to fairly little, a shortcut to meaning that may have been more effective if they weren’t such extreme, melodramatic situations. The same sketchy detail is felt in the relationship Joe’s mother, which deliberately harkens to Psycho and then opts out of developing the relationship further. Ramsey is parsing the details of genre to reach its essence, but the message doesn’t always arrive at its destination.
There are elements of Taxi Driver, a sprinkle of the Taken trilogy’s euro-trash sensibilities. In a subversion of the revenge-fetishism of those films, Ramsey never quite delivers the violence that the film seems to promise an indulgence in. The first action set-piece is seen only through security footage that arbitrarily cuts between CCTV viewpoints. The distancing effect of this is to separate the viewer from the direct action and to focus on the thoughts which may permeate for Joe instead: blood dripping, the opening of a door, the flash of a naked body.
Ramsey has a unique ability to separate sound from vision, to play the two off against each other as a way of heightening the audience’s third eye. It recalls Magritte’s skill at playing with the haptic elements of the everyday. His painting The Lovers is directly referenced through imagery of towels and plastic bags covering faces as the sound of breath takes over the acoustic space. There is a touch of Philippe Grandrieux’s volatile and uncontained style to this, or Argentinian master Lucretia Martel’s best film, The Holy Girl. The mere fact that Ramsey is bringing these styles to mainstream cinemas is enough reason to see how she combines high and low culture styles.
Ramsey, who released her first films in the late 90s, came of age in the pop-culture ironic era of Tarantino. Without the postmodern play of that time, her unbound aesthetic would perhaps not exist. But a tic which she hasn’t dropped even as such affectation has gone out of favour is the ironic soundtrack to juxtapose macabre imagery. American cinema simply isn’t at a loss for another brutal murder sequence scored to a sunny Motown hit. And it’s an omnipresent trope in the film. By the time Joe is laying on the ground next to someone he has just fatally wounded, the pair singing along to Charlene’s ‘I’ve Never Been to Me’, the film has crossed into the parodic. It is prolonged, intended as the centrepiece of the film, yet it comes across as mockingly detached, resentful of its own binding to convention. Ramsay, so liberated in films like Ratcatcher and especially Morvern Callar (one of the greatest 00s films), seems to have found American production stifling, so adherent is it to story and character. Her images are still undeniably evocative, but the lingering effect is gone.