The last film of the Cambridge Film Festival’s line-up, You Were Never Really Here came after a four day retrospective on the film’s director, Lynne Ramsey. Praised by many critics but relatively underrated in the mainstream, Ramsey has been making feature films since 1999, when her debut, Ratcatcher, was released to critical acclaim. Focusing on a young boy living in a crumbling Glasgow in the mid-1970s, Ratcatcher had a bleakness to it to rival Mike Leigh’s Naked, with scavenging rats running through dilapidated apartment buildings and rotting tenements, all while a boy deals with his guilt over the death of a friend. Next came Movern Cellar, a great sophomore effort starring Samantha Morton as a clerk who, after finding her boyfriend has committed suicide, decides to publish his posthumous novel as her own work, before going on a Spanish vacation with the book advance. Much of Ramsey’s work seems to concentrate on characters right on the edge of morality, capable of doing terrible things while remaining sympathetic in some strange way. This is seen in her next film too, the Lionel Shriver adaptation We Need To Talk About Kevin. Tilda Swinton plays Eva, the mother of troubled teenager Kevin, who, on a day bleakly referred to as ‘Thursday’, walks through the doors of his local high school and murders a number of his classmates. The focus remains steadily on Eva for the majority of the film, on the unwavering search for a reason behind the tragedy, her unablity to escape the horrible feeling that she never wanted children in the first place. It is a pretty short filmography, but it is stellar, with Ramsey clearly exercising full creative control in each and every film.
This brings us to You Were Never Really Here. In short, I think it’s her best film to date. It’s concise, fragmented, sympathetically written, well shot, scored, acted, and composed in a way which makes it feel completely individual even if it shares some similarities in its narrative beats to other films. Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, an anxious lowlife who, by day, lives with and takes care of his elderly mother, and, by night, is contracted to rescue missing girls from child sex rings. He’s a quiet protagonist, with an appetite for self-destruction and a predilection for violence simmering behind his eyes. One might draw comparisons between him and Travis Bickle from Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, or Ryan Gosling’s character from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, but Ramsey and Phoenix treat the character with so much more empathy that you forget such comparisons by the time the credits roll.
Physically, Phoenix’s Joe is massive; you hear the impact of his boots as he moves through scenes, armed with a purpose and a steel-tipped hammer, bloodied by the action of the day. The interesting thing is that Phoenix juggles this imposing physicality with a great emotional vulnerability. We catch glimmers of war-torn horror and child abuse, but Ramsey never feels the need to explain the details. We get just enough to understand where Joe’s fractured mind comes from without it detracting from the pace of the film. And the pace is pretty intense, especially in the second half where the film moves into especially violent territory. Cameras catch glimpses of Phoenix in act of violence like CCTV cameras picking up the movement of stray dogs or homeless men. It is less that the violence is a spectacle and more that the violence is there because of the nature of the story. Nothing about it is indulgent; it is all shot with the necessary distance that every bullet to the head and hammer to the face has the same cinematic impact: it’s shocking every time.
Some of the film’s most disturbing scenes are those which don’t involve violence. At one point, Phoenix is asked to take a group photo for a few Japanese students. The camera holds a tight zoom on their faces as Phoenix takes the photo, their faces morphed from giddiness to dread, their eyes wet with tears and their mouths open wide, teeth protruding in existential dread at something unseen. It’s almost as if Phoenix’s world has peeled back its ugly skin to reveal the terrible reality hiding underneath everything, viscous and twisted. This is all made that little bit more haunting by the score, composed by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, which combines the grand yet sinister quality of his work with Paul Thomas Anderson on There Will Be Blood and The Master with the electronic elusiveness of Kid A, Radiohead’s fantastic fourth album. It just compliments the action on screen in a completely fitting way.
You Were Never Really Here is a gratifying, emotionally gripping experience. It’s disturbing and violent, but only because it needs to be. It never becomes indulgent or heavy-handed in its approach, and it confirms Lynne Ramsey as a filmmaker who is unafraid to take risks or deal with unsettling topics. It is a film which hits you hard, leaving an impression which remains with you, in that very special way that film can do.