I first saw Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it was the final title to screen in competition because the filmmakers were still working on it. The Cannes cut made it in just under the wire in rough, unfinished form, with a running time that, hilariously, kept changing depending on whom you asked. The festival had felt more lackluster than usual despite some standout titles — but then Ramsay came in at the last minute with her cinematic hand grenade and shocked many of us into attention, and awe.
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That moment — the shock, the uncertainty, as well as the triumph — felt particularly sweet because Ramsay had been missing from screens for a few years, after a rather public and messy falling-out with the producers of the Western Jane Got a Gun, which she had originally been slated to direct. (Gavin O’Connor eventually helmed the film.) But it also seemed curiously appropriate, since Ramsay makes movies about people on the edge, people up against the wall, people trying — and sometimes failing — to claw their way back out of existential holes. Her films reveal that she understands something elemental about brokenness, and that she can convey it particularly well through her mastery of form: In her work, composition, performance and rhythm transform simple character interactions into discomfiting shards of cinematic poetry. (Her closest forebear in that sense is Sam Peckinpah, who pretty much redefined action cinema by turning violence into stylized, neurotic fever dreams.)
Based on Jonathan Ames’s novel, You Were Never Really Here follows the disjointed, tormented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former soldier and law enforcement official who now works as a kind of hammer-wielding vigilante-for-hire, finding missing people (usually, it seems, kids). He’s also suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress, hounded at every turn by visions of the people he couldn’t save along the way. We see flashes of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq and a shipping container full of dead migrants, and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn’t there for them, as well. At Cannes, I wrote: “As depicted by Ramsay’s frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts. … Standing on a train platform or drinking from a water fountain, he sees young women looking at him through dead or wounded eyes. Are they just pointedly posed bystanders, accusing specters from his past, or ghosts of failures yet to come?”
But there’s more to it than that. Joe himself is one of the left-behind. He’s self-destructive, in ways both alarming and playful. He might goof around with a knife while lying down, letting the blade hover a few inches above his face. He does a pretty funny imitation of Norman Bates in Psycho with his elderly, invalid mother. (I asked Phoenix about this bit when I interviewed him recently; apparently it was improvised, so we should probably give some credit to the actors here, too.) Joe will also wrap a plastic bag around his head and bring himself to the edge of asphyxiation, something we see him in flashbacks doing as a kid. He longs for oblivion. At times, we might wonder if he might have already achieved it. Could we be watching a ghost?
That's because in You Were Never Really Here, Joe has a remarkable ability to disappear. Ramsay shoots the film’s action often by avoiding it altogether — showing Joe just rounding a corner or leaving a room, a wake of carnage behind him. That’s a fascinating state of mind to put the viewer in: The story is told from Joe’s perspective, and yet all too often we don’t actually see Joe himself, simply the trail of destruction he’s left behind — bloodied heads and slit throats and mangled people and broken objects — so that he seems to become the sum total of the havoc he’s wreaked, both to others and to himself. On the screen, our hero is a shadow, literally and spiritually. And by skirting the edge of oblivion, he has somehow turned his self-loathing and self-negation, all his self-destructive impulses, into a kind of secret power. As much as he needs to break free of his demons, his demons are also partly the reason that he’s able to do what he does. Ramsay has taken that terrifying paradox — one that many artists can probably relate to — and turned it into a transcendent, at times almost dangerous film.