You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Lynne Ramsay | 1hr 35min

The prisons which Lynne Ramsay’s characters trap themselves inside are not made of material, but of time and memories, reverberating with echoes of past traumas and in the case of Joe, teasing him with visions of potential futures. As he lumbers through everyday life caring for his elderly mother, he disappears into himself as a hulking mass of emptiness, and then when he sets himself to work he transforms into a force of pain and justice. His targets? Human traffickers, specifically those who kidnap and profit off young girls. For a man who lives in persistent agony and possesses the talent to exact that suffering upon others, the cause towards which he channels it is surprisingly noble, though given how closely he identifies with the corrupt world around him, these missions to restore its lost innocence touchingly point towards a shred of hope for his own salvation.

Saving young victims of trafficking is only one path out of his mental prison though. The other is far blunter, and much easier. Just as Joe is plagued by visions of Nina, one specific girl he has been tasked with rescuing, so too does he indulge in fantasies of his own suicide, imagining the sort of release that would come with letting it all go. Equally as immediate as his own prospective futures is his tragic past, punctuating the narrative in bursts of flashbacks that reveal glimpses of an abusive childhood he continues to re-enact in the present, wrapping himself up and suffocating in plastic just as his father used to do to him, all the while Ramsay reveals the direct parallels between these timelines in graphic match cuts.

Ramsay continues to prove her credentials as one of the great editors working today, give us these short, sharp bursts of traumatic flashbacks that also work as match cuts.

Like all of her films before, You Were Never Really Here is far less concerned with crafting a plot and dialogue than it is creating an impressionistic sense of a lonely, disorientated mind out of montages, leaping across time in non-linear structures that destabilise any notion of objective reality. With such a minimalist screenplay, Ramsay frees herself up to follow in the steps of such experimental silent filmmakers as Sergei Eisenstein by building hypnotic rhythms and powerful visual juxtapositions in the editing room, drawing us into a bitter nightmare of hallucinations and flashbacks quietly spinning out of control.

Arresting images such as these becoming part of Ramsay’s ethereal, dreamy atmosphere.

Inhabiting the vessel of trauma that Ramsay’s restless style whirls around is Joaquin Phoenix, whose aptitude for psychologically broken characters takes on entirely different dimensions here than we have seen before. His face is covered in shaggy, grey hair, serving the same purpose as his baggy clothing and low-profile cap in concealing the shape and identity of the man who lies beneath. Neither fat nor muscular seem like proper descriptions here, but he is heavy, laying his whole body into physical confrontations and choosing the blunt force of a hammer over other more practical weapons. Few of Joe’s opponents pose any real challenge to his raw physical power, and we come to accept this to the point that Ramsay eventually excludes his fights altogether as he infiltrates a mansion where Nina is being held captive. Instead, we simply cut between the black-and-white surveillance footage of his determined trudge through the halls and the quiet aftermath of each encounter along the way, his enemies silently lying in pools of their own blood.

Ramsay’s use of negative space in framing Joaquin Phoenix superbly underscores Joe’s own emptiness.

Aside from one ambush that takes him unaware, it is evident that taking out these corrupt men poses little challenge to Joe, leaving the film open to a more internal conflict that pitches him against his own self-destructive psyche. Inside it, a haunting sound design of panicked whispers and Jonny Greenwood’s score of uneven, percussive beats melds with such perfect unease into Ramsay’s fragmented editing style, while in her mise-en-scène she continues to frame Joe in all sorts of mirrors that seem to reflect broken or incomplete visions of himself back at him. At times it is all too easy to sink into the ambient sea of bloody violence and death that she crafts here, but just as our troubled protagonist cannot escape those unexpected, sharp flashes of trauma, we too never fully acclimate to his ongoing pain. It is that possibility of just one more young life being saved which pulls us along, raising us up to the surface when the depression takes hold, and which offers a revitalised sense of purpose for even the most hopelessly imprisoned minds.

Fragmented mirrors and distorted reflections a recurring motif throughout Ramsay’s mise-en-scène. A truly internal character study of trauma and self-punishment.

You Were Never Really Here is currently streaming on Kanopy, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

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