You Were Never Really Here (2018) by Lynne Ramsay
Lynne Ramsay, who made her name in Scotland with Ratcatcher (1999) and Morvern Caller (2002) before arriving in the United States with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), is one of contemporary cinema’s finest directors of the haptic. Her four features thus far are records of the sensory experiences of individuals. In her work, no world exists beyond the confines of the subject; what we see is what the characters feel.
I can understand, then, why Ramsay would be attracted to the material that forms the backbone of her latest film, You Were Never Really Here, adapted from Jonathan Ames’ book of the same name. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), whose last name we never learn, makes his living rescuing girls from human trafficking. He is also a veteran suffering from PTSD and a victim of abuse. Due to what he’s lived through, Joe has lost control of his perception, an experience that Ramsay seeks to replicate for her audience. Ramsay never clearly articulates what has happened to Joe or what he’s gone through. Instead, at random junctures, flashes of images – a foot in the sand, a boy with a plastic bag over his head – will jut in, destabilizing Joe and audience alike. Joe’s mind is no longer his; our eyes are no longer ours.
Despite its controversial subject matter, We Need to Talk About Kevin existed apart from Ramsay’s early work. It felt hermetically sealed, drained of every drop of air and atmosphere, divorced from the world in its painstaking attention to detail and directorial precision. Though You Were Never Really Here is equally interior, it does feel more in touch with what’s around it. Joe is consistently at odds with his world: dislocated, disoriented, and fragmented. The bodies we see onscreen are often only parts of bodies. The violence is tight, messy, and always unclear, even when shown through the gaze of a surveillance camera. Individual objects are almost deified in how the camera isolates them from the world in which they exist: a corral of bloody tissues, a green jelly bean in between Joe’s fingers, a ball peen hammer on the rack in a hardware store. Joaquin Phoenix has transformed himself into a hulking presence, but that presence is often most effective when we hardly see him or can’t at all, the static camera trapped in an empty room where violence has just occurred – or will soon occur.
This is where the film’s primary conflict lies: not between Joe and the bad guys or boogeymen who kidnap girls, but between Joe and the space he lives in and those who inhabit it, or at least his perception of that space. He cuts off his relationship with a business partner after his associate’s son sees him on the street. We see him bristle and recoil with reluctance when asked by strangers to take their picture. His relationship with his mother, seemingly the only emotional connection he has left in his life, violently swings between kindness and hostility. The examples of Joe’s distance from society are rather clumsy and overt, but one still gets a sense of how painful it must be for a person like this to live in a place New York City, where bodies are constantly brushing up against bodies. A thousand needles must enter Joe’s flesh every hour of every day.
Lending the film an even greater sense of subjectivity are the regular scenes where Joe gestures at suicide. When Joe isn’t killing other people, he’s trying to kill himself. He frequently locks himself in his room, placing a plastic bag over his head, something we soon learn he’s done since childhood. These scenes repeat again and again, reflecting how certain images have burrowed themselves into Joe’s brain, but that repetition – as well as how literally Ramsay plays out some of Joe’s internal conflicts – begins to feel like a crutch. In one of the film’s most embarrassing sequences, Joe attempts to drown himself, making his “difficulty breathing” even more painfully literal. At times, Ramsay plays into the fantasy, letting us wonder for a moment whether or not Joe has done the deed for real this time. After awhile, Joe’s ideation makes the film feel a little bit like Logan with the suicidal fantasies from Harold and Maude stapled onto it.
Ramsay may firmly root us in Joe's worldview, but the world itself is a different matter. More than a sense of sense, Ramsay’s work in her home country had a sense of place. Even if her films weren’t political per se, they possessed an awareness of class and corresponding social context. Her work remains situated in the sensory, but something has changed. For her two American films, Ramsay adapted source material that tackled charged issues: school massacres in We Need to Talk About Kevin and human trafficking, PTSD, and even police and government corruption in You Were Never Really Here. These are complicated problems across the globe, but they operate specific to an American context.
This is not to say that there have not been many non-American filmmakers who have made phenomenal films in America or about America. But Ramsay firmly unlinks these thorny concerns from any broader social framework. You Were Never Really Here is not a film about human trafficking. It is a film about a man who rescues girls from human trafficking. It is not a film about PTSD. It is a film about a man with PTSD. This is also not to say that any movie that deals with these subjects must make a political statement or confront the larger systems that have led these problems to fester and worsen. But it often feels like Ramsay wants it both ways.
Critic Adam Nayman identifies You Were Never Really Here as “artsploitation,” a not-quite genre of post-Drive films that exist somewhere between pulp and prestige (and perhaps a cousin to “elevated horror,” a phrase that a) makes me cringe and b) our own Andrew Swafford has dealt with). Think brutal violence, but make it A24. Ramsay wants to appropriate loaded subjects, offering minimal social insight in return like a down and dirty genre filmmaker might, but she also wants to use those loaded subjects to explore the subjective experience of her protagonist. Either way, there’s little reflection upon the complicated terrain she traverses or attempt to connect it to anything beyond Joe. The girl Joe rescues ends up feeling like a MacGuffin, and his destabilizing flashbacks end up feeling like jump scares.
The fragmentation, the dislocation, the disorientation, all of these traits so essential to Joe’s experience as a human being appear more like hindrances to the work as a whole than essential elements. Joaquin Phoenix often feels unsure of himself and even undirected, strong and silent in some moments, histrionic in others. Jonny Greenwood’s score is a grab bag of intriguing elements but also feels uncertain, sometimes evoking the hypnagogic soundscapes of police thrillers from decades past, other times recalling his lush orchestrations for Phantom Thread. And when she’s not using Greenwood’s score, Ramsay leans on ironic, old-timey music cues like “Angel Baby” and “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d Have Baked a Cake,” a trope I’d like to thoroughly put to bed.
The considerable number of critics who have been more generous to this film than myself might say that fragmentation is precisely the point: this is a person whose puzzle pieces don’t fit snugly together, someone who lives their whole life on unstable ground. Or perhaps it’s the brutality of living with trauma that Ramsay wants to convey. If that’s the case, my disconnect from the film might just amount to a personal preference. At numerous points throughout You Were Never Really Here, I found myself thinking of M. Night Shyamalan’s Split, which also concerns itself with an adult man and a young girl who’ve survived horrible things. Perhaps I just prefer the empathy of Shyamalan work to the purposeful cruelty of Ramsay. On the other hand, even American Sniper handled the uncertainty and instability of a veteran's PTSD better.
Ramsay’s film could maybe work under another title: How To Disappear Completely, after the song from the band that made composer Jonny Greenwood famous. For that seems to be what Joe wishes to achieve: not death, but total disappearance. He craves nonexistence; he wants to be written out of history like George Bailey, but never put back in. Instead, what we receive is the total disappearance of what made Ramsay so distinctive and so evocative as a director, with only traces of brilliance in its wake. For most of its runtime, I found myself wishing You Were Never Really Here would disappear too.