If I had to sum up Lynne Ramsay’s style of filmmaking in a word it would be ‘concentrated’. Important clues about a character, or a vital link in a chain of events, might be expressed in a single shot or a couple of words. Don’t expect any long scenes of expositionary dialogue. Or, to be honest, short ones. After the credits rolled for You Were Never Really Here it took me and my friend Nick a good 20 minutes to work out to our respective satisfaction roughly what had gone on. Though we were still a bit iffy on the why. A stranger in front of us offered up a theory on one of the characters that we hadn’t even considered. But this isn’t meant as carping – though I did miss one big reveal due to some actorly mumbling – more a reflection on a very intense, occasionally fragmentary, way of telling a story.
In the first five minutes Ramsay effectively sets out her stall. Motes of dust, a man auto asphyxiating himself, a hammer covered in thick congealing blood, a terrified half-naked boy. Although you couldn’t piece together a coherent narrative you get the main idea: brutality, terror and the loss of innocence. The film proceeds as a particularly American form of nightmare with nods to other giants of the genre. Early on Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) jokingly performs the staccato Psycho shower music to his mother whilst the plot bears similarities to Taxi Driver; and it links politics to sexual depravity as effectively as Chinatown.
Joe works for some kind of agency which tracks down lost children. He gets an assignment from a Senator whose daughter has gone missing. Though the Senator has been texted the address of a house which turns out to be a child brothel where his daughter is being kept. Joe seems strangely incurious about who exactly solved the case for him, though this is just one of the mysteries which never seem to get resolved. Which doesn’t particularly matter as the film is genuinely brilliant on almost everything else. From the dowdy, depressing interiors, to the queasy sense of violence that permeates almost every scene, to Phoenix’s completely committed performance Ramsay doesn’t lose your attention for a second.
Phoenix’s portrayal is pretty much a meditation on human suffering. With his unkempt beard and basically inscrutable stare – which occasionally cracks into crying jags of anguish – he seems to alternate between Charles Manson and Jesus. What kind of person is he? Even with clues to the abuse he suffered as a kid, and the horrors he witnessed as a soldier, it’s hard to tell. Though in one scene, perhaps one of his hallucinations, there’s a comparatively long shot of a young girl who looks into his eyes and starts to cry. Whether it’s in sympathy or fear or both, it’s a brilliantly ambiguous judgement on this grizzled wreck of a human being.
Shown as part of the Cinecity Festival.