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‘You Were Never Really Here’ Turns a Familiar Thriller Into the Unexpected

Director Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature—featuring a Cannes-winning performance by Joaquin Phoenix—is an extended lesson in formal control

Amazon Studios/Ringer illustration

It’s not the oldest trick in the book, but it’s getting there: A brutal act of violence gets soundtracked by an innocuously incongruous song. Think Malcolm McDowell doing a weaponized version of Gene Kelly’s song-and-dance routine in A Clockwork Orange (an addition made by Stanley Kubrick, who’d previously used a Vera Lynn chestnut to herald the end of the world in Dr. Strangelove) or Michael Madsen torturing the undercover cop in Reservoir Dogs in time to the handclap percussion of “Stuck in the Middle With You”; think Dennis Hopper popping Roy Orbison in the car stereo as a prelude to brutalizing Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet or Patrick Bateman singing the praises of Huey Lewis in American Psycho or Daniel Craig pondering his impending castration near the end of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as Enya’s blissful “Orinoco Flow” invites him to “sail away, sail away, sail away.”

There is a similar contrapuntal coup in Lynne Ramsay’s new thriller, You Were Never Really Here, but the Scottish director is working a style slightly askew to the alpha-male types above, less cool/cruel and more strangely humane. In a brightly lit kitchen, a man lies on the floor, fatally gutshot. The shooter is sprawled out beside him, physically spent. A nearby radio plays Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me,” as cheesy a slice of ’70s-vintage Velveeta as exists in the world of FM playlists (I’d link to Jimmy Fallon using it in a lip-synch battle against Lena Dunham except every aspect of that concept makes me wish I was never really here).

When the two men start singing along, it seems we’re supposed to take it as a joke, except that the scene gradually mutates from morbid comedy toward something more tender. The dying man offers his hand to his murderer, who takes it, and suddenly the song’s lyrics evoke spiritual communion: “Won’t you share a part / of a weary heart / that has lived a million lies?”

Tweaking the familiar until it becomes unexpected is the M.O. of You Were Never Really Here. It’s a film that uses an entire designer arsenal to hit a series of relatively obvious narrative beats. Sometimes, the blows land with the blunt force of the hammer wielded by its main character, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-soldier turned freelance avenger whose hard-hitting reputation precedes him. (“I heard you were brutal,” enthuses one client.) Elsewhere, the impact is softened, like a steel claw wrapped in gossamer. At times, the camera clings so closely to the action that people and locations blur into haptic abstractions. There isn’t a boringly composed frame in this movie, and Thomas Townend’s cinematography is fully alert to textures ranging from flowers in bloom to crumpled, bloody Kleenex; a seemingly throwaway shot of fingers slowly squishing a green jelly bean exerts a hypnotic fascination.

Phoenix may be the film’s star (and the winner of a Best Actor prize last year at Cannes, much to his own surprise), but it’s his director who’s giving a truly virtuoso performance. Ramsay’s much anticipated comeback feature—her third since 1999’s remarkable Ratcatcher and first since 2011’s divisive best-seller adaptation We Need to Talk About Kevin—is an extended lesson in formal control.

We Need to Talk About Kevin was also masterly filmmaking, albeit in an oppressive way. The film’s elaborate visual design—rows and rows of self-consciously Warholian tomato soup cans, promising that there will be blood—seemed to enshrine both Ramsay’s artistic self-regard and the shallowness of the story’s overwrought bad-seed themes. Showy and empty, it was a perfect example of a Bad Good Movie, a disappointing turnabout from Ramsay’s superb earlier work, which had a more modestly visionary quality. In Ratcatcher and the amazing Morvern Callar, the director imagined lives and experiences close to home in the UK and off the grid in terms of cinematic representation. Both Kevin and You Were Never Really Here, which is based on a 2013 noir novella by Jonathan Ames, are more easily branded as the kind of hip, glossy artsploitation that’s in vogue among many of the world’s most talented young and mid-career filmmakers.

Ideally, major artists avoid or subvert trends instead of following them, and there’s nothing in Ratcatcher’s poetic, child’s-eye view of a suburban garbage strike or Morvern Callar’s deft, intimate, portrait of a young woman coping with her boyfriend’s suicide to hint that its creator’s output would come to even superficially resemble the oil-slick schtick of, say, Nicolas Winding Refn. Still, here we are. Ramsay is crossing over into commercial territory; the question is whether her skill unlocks something profound in the process or if she’s pandering to the market. At various points throughout You Were Never Really Here, we see shots of New York City from the vantage of an elevated subway train, moving first in one direction, and then the other; with each trip back and forth, I could feel myself shifting between admiration for her immaculate craftsmanship and skepticism about its application.

In plot terms, You Were Never Really Here is really nothing we haven’t seen before, and maybe even something we’ve seen more than enough of: a hard-boiled hero, a kidnapped girl, a political conspiracy. After completing a job in Cincinnati, Joe returns home to Queens where he’s hired by a state senator to locate and retrieve his missing teenage daughter, whom he believes has been sold into sexual slavery in the city’s richest neighborhoods. This could have all been written by Nic Pizzolatto, which is not a compliment. As for Joe’s lethal skills, they’re comic book stuff (or maybe “graphic novel” is more like it, with an emphasis on “graphic”) and deployed with the moral certitude of an Old Testament pronouncement: Thou shalt not abduct young girls, or else.

Ramsay’s script leans into the clichés without necessarily buying into them, or at least not all of them. The villains and their motivations are frustratingly vague, which may be because the film is so burrowed into its hero’s point of view. It’s clear that Joe lives in his own head to the exclusion of interest or curiosity about others. The only human connection in his life is his mother (a superb Judith Roberts), whom he treats with slavish affection mixed with pity, revulsion, and guilt. There is some humor in their dynamic; Ramsay presents Joe’s mama’s-boy deference by having him arrive at her house while Psycho is playing on television, hinting that there’s a bit of Norman Bates’s mania in his devotion (he even jokes about stabbing her in the shower).

Meanwhile, jump-cut flashbacks (which cut through the editing scheme like shards of broken glass) indicate that Mom is only one of several women that Joe has failed to protect over the years, and also maybe that his aggro tendencies are a by-product of systematic abuse. The suggestion is that Joe’s unsentimental professionalism is a cover for a much more desperate sort of pathology, and that the stakes he’s playing for are higher than envelopes of cash. The ambiguity of his backstory, combined with the almost totally blank nature of Phoenix’s performance (nobody internalizes pain better) gives his do-gooder persona a broken, warped aspect that’s very close to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. And Scorsese’s classic, which already casts a long shadow over other arty 21st-century thrillers from Drive to Good Time, obviously functions as an inspiration, not least of all in the way that Jonny Greenwood’s score pulls a Bernard Herrmann, blanketing the action in a thick weave of strings—a harder-edged variation on the Radiohead guitarist’s luxurious music for Phantom Thread).

Ramsay isn’t paralyzed by homage or reverence, however. Her bold, expressionistic visuals are in a similar tradition but they don’t owe debts. The biggest reversal, though, comes in how the two films reckon with their protagonists’ respective savior complexes. Scorsese indulges Travis’s fantasies of rescuing Jodie Foster’s Iris from a group of vicious pimps; even as he makes it clear that Travis is out of his mind, he invites us to share his moment of triumph. Ramsay slyly contrives things so that Joe’s efforts are finally beside the point, denying him (and us) the kind of catharsis conferred in Taxi Driver’s finale.

This is not to say that You Were Never Really Here is superior—or equal to—one of the keynote American movies of the 1970s, just that Ramsay is very much doing her own thing, part of which may be catering to fashion. But the more that I think about You Were Never Really Here, the more I’m inclined to give its excesses the benefit of the doubt. A sequence showing Joe plying his trade entirely via surveillance cameras is a gimmick, but it also says something provocative about violence and spectatorship, presenting an unblinking but distanced perspective on carnage that another director might have rendered in close-up. The “I’ve Never Been to Me” sing-along is right on the edge of being a glib Tarantino-ism until it isn’t. And there is a scene late in the film, set beside a lake upstate, that goes well beyond the Charlene needle drop in terms of forcing us to choose between silly and sublime. In it, Ramsay uses a visual metaphor that’s so heavy it threatens to sink the sequence, and even the whole film, with its weight. The confidence of the image-making on display has its own miraculous buoyancy, however, and instead we feel a lift. That sense of levitation is real, and so are Ramsay’s gifts. Even if she’s hovering above her material, there’s no denying she’s working at a high level.