You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay, 2018
In his sleeve notes to Joy Division’s 1979 double-single, Licht und Blindheit, Jean-Pierre Turmel writes that “categories of anguish tend to mesh together: the oppression of depths and the closed evoke the dread of the void … the corridors [of the] dead resound in the far depths of ourselves like the idea of the infinite.”
Joaquin Phoenix, as Joe in Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature You Were Never Really Here, is the image of this – the burden of our inner depths – as he drives through an anonymous New York: barely awake, slouched, at the wheel veering, palms dragging coarse cross straggthreads poured outward from a bloat of a skull, hands roving over and again down a face that is more a boundary, blocking reality, incarcerating past traumas borne inward to rebound trapped and raged like darting atoms.
About halfway through a runtime of retro tautness (a Carpenter 90′), we’ve proceeded to this point similarly off keel, events not so much moving forward in step with Joe’s character but tumbling down a sharp, rocky incline and dragging him in tow. A job rescuing the daughter of a state senator from the clutches of some illuminati-run Manhattan sex ring has turned out to be not such a cakewalk – revealing itself to be more perverse and tangled than that already perverse and tangled description would suggest.
Joe has a standing service line in abductee rescue and contract killing, his skillset for the purpose seemingly honed through one or more tours in some abstracted Middle Eastern landscape of post-2003 American militarism, flashbacks from which, in tandem with those of a fearful childhood under an abusive father, tug at his every waking nerve.
In kind our own bearings are rarely more together, Ramsay and Joe Bini’s editing a continuing conflict of lull and frenzy, Jonny Greenwood’s clanking, caterwauling, synth and percussion score (to which that Joy Division release is surely a bedrock) all assaultive noise, bursting forth from Joe’s consciousness, competing on the soundtrack with his inner voices.
Even in the film’s opening, as Joe tidies the detritus of an apparently more routine job, the pieces are muddled: is it the victim’s personal effects, strewn as if in struggle across a hotel room, that we are watching Joe discard? Is his assailant in the alley behind the hotel someone sent to stop him, or simply a chance attacker looking for a wallet and phone? Nothing quite resolves. Should it?
These films have familiar patterns, ways of mollifying violence into a means of propelling story – story itself an exercise in joining events through cause, and in the bargain suggesting meaning. Ramsay finds time and again ways to break these patterns. Her violence is absurd, confused and unexplained. It actively assaults meaning. In the film’s most memorable scene, Joe lays on his mother’s kitchen floor with one of the men who has just killed her, mumbling along to a golden oldie that’s lilting softly from the kitchen radio, the intruder – shot in the stomach and dying – accompanying in the duet as he slowly bleeds out. Righteous fury is the preset for this sort of scene – at the very least a manic purpose bred from chaos, something vaguely formative. But Ramsay gives us a dead end: grief, a little compassion, some heavy medication and the stifling quietude of an empty suburban weekday afternoon, the opportunity to share in a moment with another its only deliverance.
Broadly well received, there were murmurs nonetheless in certain circles that this sort of behavior was all a bit much. A bit arch. Nice in small doses but not the thing to overdo. The procedure to fault was roughly this: categorize the piece as a genre film, then use that predicate to censure when it spurned expectations – Ramsay’s deviations condemned as either glib and frivolous, or the hallmark of another art house doyen deigning to slum it in mainstream trappings. Critics can be strange creatures: railing against cliche one moment, but when presented the next with the genuinely unfamiliar, finding the experience a little too vertiginous.
Of course you can hardly blame the individuals, contemporary film writing overwhelmingly encumbered with comparative analysis, ‘good’ a concept defined and demarcated by the canon, any decent review’s third paragraph comprised near exclusively of everything the writer can recall as vaguely similar to the subject film.
You Were Never Really Here invites this specter more than most, doubly in fact: most clearly in its sequel-level resemblance to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver, but more interestingly in the driving existential proposition of Pheonix’s character: how the past dominates the present.
First things first. Ramsay’s is a modern attenuation of Scorsese’s 70s New York — its broiling, eruptive psychopathy medicated to controlled polarity, in Joe as it is in the city: suburban sedation at the reprieve of anti-anxiety pills; offset by brutal victim retrieval missions, urban descents in the vein of Taxi Driver’s final, trance-state rescue massacre.
Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle, in Taxi Driver, glides near dreaming through nocturnal Manhattan to a hellscape found foothold as securely in vulnerabilities internal as external. He finds it because he needs to: it exists because the city has no care for the weak, and it exists because Travis has only antipathy for humanity.
Joe does not need to find this side of the city or of people. It becomes clear that the work does not release pressure for him but rather slowly destroys him, drawing forth more acutely the distresses and abuses of his past.
You Were Never Really Here is in this way all about the continued suffering of what has come before. As Turmel, writing like a madman in that brilliant, frenzied eulogy to Joy Division’s music, characterized the dark as the ascendancy of the subconscious, Ramsay’s film is a vain rallying shriek from the cells of that interior darkness – its spare, neon-hued glimmers of light spot-flared and fleeting.
Joe lives the way he does because it is what he knows and because it is what he knows he can do, because of the tenacity of the familiar in monopolizing our essence – even if that familiar is violence and terror. Is it accident that an abusive childhood begat a soldier, and then an assassin? What came before will come again. Your time accrues into past, settles heavy around the edges, and becomes the product and drive of character. You are defined again over by it, and life proceeds in absentia. You were never really here.