You Were Never Really Here (Lynne Ramsay, 2017): a director’s recurring visual voice for disturbed characters

Lynne Ramsay’s 2017 film You Were Never Really Here premiered 6 years after her masterpiece We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of my favourite and most-watched films of all time, so it’s surprising how long it’s taken to get around to watching it. The fairly short – 1hr30m – film is a violent-but-not-graphic, intense-but-not-explicit view into the gritty world of traumatised war veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix). He spends his present days as a hired gun, rescuing teenage and child runaways from dark situations that seem to trigger his PTSD and flashbacks, yet simultaneously gives him even more reason to save the vulnerable kids. When one of his jobs to return home a political figure’s teenage daughter from a child sex trafficking ring turns into something more warped and vicious than even he is used to, Joe falls farther down a twisted trap of politics and death as he fights against his own suicidal wishes and traumatic flashbacks in order to save the girl from a gruesome end.

The similarities between You Were Never Really Here (YWNRH) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (WNTTAK) are very apparent; Ramsay’s newest feature is clearly full of her filmic nuances and visual techniques she favourites, not to mention the disjointed mental state of the main character represented through these methods that express the conscientious and intelligent character delineation she executed in WNTTAK that I so deeply admired. Visually, both films present the mentality of the main character (Joe in YWNRH, Eva in WNTTAK) through colour and editing that pulls the audience sharply between through present-day and past, exploring their current actions and desires by giving us small, spasmodic insights into their past experiences that make no sense when viewed alone, but gradually come together by the end of the film so the main character’s final moments make sense in terms of how they’re operating within the finale’s context.

We learn, through these eerie interruptions of flashbacks that combat his mind, that Joe is a veteran of the Gulf War, and the things he saw during this time – such as watching a small child be shot to death, or opening a freezer door to a pile of young Asian girls, dead and assumedly part of a trafficking ring – never leave him. The flashbacks are quiet; have little-to-no dialogue (certainly not from the quiet Joe); sometimes involve a camera focus on something obscure in the foreground and giving no clarity to the events in the background; these techniques Ramsay utilises, although abstruse and indistinct in themselves, provide a clear understanding of Joe’s fractured mental state as a result of the war. These experiences bleed into his present-day, like when a group of female Asian tourists innocently stop him in the street to ask him to take their photo actually triggers these flashbacks, as each shot of a girl smiling (or are they grimacing?) makes him remember the freezer, the pile of girls, the fact he was too late to save them, the fact they couldn’t be saved – what’s the difference between that and the tourists when he sees their happy smiles as the ones he’s seen of death and terror? Ramsay doesn’t let us know, just as Joe himself doesn’t know, as the indistinguishable images he sees with his eyes and in his head are combined.

This technique of the auteur director’s is incredibly effective in achieving a subtle, quiet, yet incredibly intricate and deep view of a character that doesn’t really say much but feels a whole lot of emotion. The fatigue and pain of Joe is provided through his flashbacks, meaning we understand why he does what he does in the present-day, despite his brutal tendencies to achieve this. He kills the bad guys to save the kids, with no complaints, in dismissal of his PTSD, but with an aura of agony. Close-ups of him holding a plastic bag over his head, distorting his face as he breathes in and out, or dangling a knife over his face whilst talking to his elderly mother through the bathroom door to make sure she’s doing okay, interspersed with images of his scarred skin and blue-filtered shots in a montage of more close-ups of him in quiet despair make us aware of his suffering and give an invitation for us to sympathise with him, alongside the understanding that he is a violent and brutal man. The one-colour images and distorted close-ups are reminiscent, if exactly the same, as ones of Eva in WNTTAK, as she lies in bed in apparent torment through her facial expressions, the images coated not with her screams but of a twangy disjointed soundtrack that similarly plays over scenes of Joe’s inner struggles. Maybe Ramsay could have used different techniques to explain Joe’s mental state? But if someone’s not broken, don’t fix it – the abstract depictions of both Eva and Joe are equally as informative as they are artistic, and I’m personally glad I got to enjoy it a second time with an entirely new character.

Another trait of Ramsay’s that appears in both films is the obscure character alignment she provides. Does the audience align with Joe? He doesn’t, for example, try to save every girl in the underage brothel of sex trafficking where Nina is kept. Through the lens of the house’s multiple black and white security cameras, we see Joe first enter a room and violently pull out an older, naked male, to which he beats and shoots until he can enter the room safely and see if Nina is there. Instead, it is a different underage female, dazed but saved, who wanders away from her assaulter. Joe doesn’t direct her away from the damage, but tries out the next room for Nina. After finding her, he leaves, not even to see if there’s any more kids that need help, just leaving behind carnage as he brutally hurts and kills any (bad) person in his way. The audience only sees the scene through the silent images of the security cameras, but it is implied that Joe adheres strictly to his job description – he came to save Nina, and so that is what he’s there for. He doesn’t go on a grand expedition to save every child he possibly can, just the one’s he’s paid to save. He has no flashy gadgets or techniques, just straightforward violent paths to and from his objective. He’s not a pure definition of a hero, but is he still heroic? He has disturbing intrusive memories and endures constant trauma yet continues to rescue vulnerable and exploited children. It’s even shown in one scene that he punches a man that deals him medication for making him wait longer than he wanted too. He is broken, and angry, yet we root for him. His morality and actions are questionable, just as the audience questions Eva’s mothering to the killer Kevin in WNTTAK, and the nature vs. nurture argument is bought into examination. Ramsay doesn’t allow us to happily applaud for any one character; instead we have to muddle through our own confused feelings towards these morally atypical people that give us no clear direction as to why we may (or may not) cheer them on to win.

This isn’t necessarily a review of You Were Never Really Here, but more an appreciation for Lynne Ramsay’s incredibly interesting and artistic abstract style she achieves in her directing. I don’t believe any of her films can beat We Need to Talk About Kevin, as that is such a wonderfully intelligent film that her 2017 feature can’t quite live up. It seems Eva had the antagonist Kevin to play off of, her psychologically twisted son that haunts her dead or alive, but the emotionally-strangled Joe is almost his own antagonist, giving the audience essentially nowhere to turn to for relief. It’s all Joe, all closed-up and mentally built like a brick wall that the flashbacks can only relieve so much before the viewer is exhausted from trying to understand. This does create a problem for Joe as we endure his constant and increasing mental torture he brings upon himself, whereas Eva’s status as a mother and wife who battles against being tied down, her son, and then her son’s actions as she’s left alone in a world that hates her, elevates her to somewhere the audience can understand. Joe seems to begin at one level and stay there through his entire narrative, no character arc but instead just a pit of his own despair we watch him fighting in for 90 minutes. Ramsay is an artist, and continues to create beautiful works that combine disturbing images with abstract sounds to convey instability in emotion and mentality, but You Were Never Really Here is almost too constrained in where it wants to go, but still with the emotional weight her previous films have carried, making it difficult to navigate smoothly.

7.3/10

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