Lynne Ramsay returns to form with the hauntingly captivating You Were Never Really Here (2018). Her work in this film displays a mastery in handling blends of pathos and destruction, as her ensemble, led by the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix, paints a broad spectrum of human emotion. When viewed as a whole, You Were Never Really Here is a roller coaster of trauma split between its tragic protagonist and his vigilante justice.
The premise is brilliantly misleading. Phoenix plays a military veteran and former FBI agent who’s hired to rescue trafficked girls. He reads like a gritty superhero, and plays as such from the start, before revealing a more tragic component to his character. What starts as modern heroism soon fades into its true form: A violent form of catharsis for someone with deep-rooted trauma.
Phoenix turns in an expert performance as this troubled figure gone rogue. He knows how to play the hero, showing off his beefed up muscles with trained violence and precise surveillance. Yet he lets that mask fade when memories return and specters haunt him. There are moments when his performance turns to the absurd, if only to embrace how survivors of trauma and PTSD may really cope when experiencing overwhelming pain.
Which speaks to an important distinction: This is not an action film. It is a profile on pain.
As a guilty fan of the muscle-clad violence popular in the ’80s and ’90s, I was drawn to Ramsay’s film for partially the wrong reasons. The idea of seeing an enlarged Phoenix batter down his foes with realistic combat training was all too appealing, especially when I think of the contrast between that idea and his recent performances in Her (2013) and The Master (2012).
But that’s the trap You Were Never Really Here lays for its viewer. Ramsay knows how to emulate the violence from these films, and illustrates her mastery in glimpses of this film. There are times that one can’t help but think of Oldboy (2003) or other films centered on tortured heroes seeking justice (with optional hammers), as Ramsay’s work speaks to such material in a way that feels familiar. But just as soon as the violence becomes familiar, it turns to a powerful storytelling device. Our hero’s justice brings echoes of sexual and physical violence in his past, thereby turning it from glorified action to a haunting experience.
There are moments when this film genuinely scared me, both in its familiarity to my own experiences with depression and in its unabashed torment of its own protagonist. Ramsay mixes ghosts from the past with the twisted moments of the present to put Phoenix’s psyche on full display for the viewer. You may genuinely feel like you are in his head, as the minute details of a performance come into the foreground with one particular monologue on green jelly beans.
It’s worth mentioning that this technique of capturing small details to define a larger performance was similarly employed in Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2012), another examination of masculinity and violence through troubled and bizarre figures. The similarities between the work are clear enough to elicit a sense of dread for what’s to come, yet You Were Never Really Here paves its own path well enough to feel like a separate entry. I would say its difficult to compare the two in terms of execution, given their differences in premise; however, the approach to haunting a character feels far less resolved in Ramsay’s latest work.
Yet this is the most authentic approach to exploring the trauma of childhood abuse, or how the lingering feel of PTSD rarely fades in its entirety. These specters are meant far less to be resolved and written away than they are built upon and defined into our character. This is the struggle Ramsay’s characters so often face: Do they embrace the mask of hiding their sorrow, or do they cast it away for the unsatisfactory reality?
You Were Never Really Here is a much-needed film that I can only hope brings light to Ramsay’s talents. I sincerely believe she is one of the greatest minds working behind the camera, and I need to see more of her vision in my life. (I must also give tremendous praise to Jonny Greenwood as well, for bringing an outstanding musical presence.)
I obviously recommend seeing this film in the near future. But be warned: What you see on the surface is only part of the picture. The brilliance of it is finding out what lies beneath.
You Were Never Really Here
dir. Lynne Ramsay
Now playing at Coolidge Corner Theatre and Kendall Square Cinema