You Were Never Really Here: I Have Become Cumbersome, by David Bax
Plotwise, Lynne Ramsay’s new movie about a man of violence on a mission, You Were Never Really Here, has little in common with her 2002 movie about a woman seizing the day in a liberatingly amoral way, Morvern Callar. Yet the new film somehow feels like a companion piece. Awash in bleeding neon, You Were Never Really Here gives the impression of a painting that hasn’t dried yet. That immediacy, at once strong and fragile, tells the same story as the older film, about the existential precariousness of living a tactile life in an increasingly technological world. This time around, though, Ramsay sadly runs out of runway before ever taking off, coming to rest in a shallow pool of empty cynicism.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a contractor of sorts whose services are retained by a private detective (John Doman), who hires Joe on a case by case basis to do bad things to bad people. His latest job is to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a prominent politician (Alex Mannette). She’s been kidnapped by a pedophile ring that caters to the morally bankrupt upper crust. Joe is told where she is. All he has to do is go in, rack up whatever collateral damage is necessary and get her out. But when things go haywire, it’s up to Joe to save the day, and maybe even himself, the only way he knows how. By hitting a lot of people in the head with a hammer.
So Ramsay, as distinct a voice as we’ve got in modern cinema, has made what could have been a tediously conventional thriller. Nicolas Cage has probably made a half dozen direct-to-VOD movies with similar stories; he’s almost certainly even done his own variation on You Were Never Really Here‘s genre-standard, tough-guy-performs-self-surgery scene. But one of the best meta jokes here is how little Ramsay is concerned with the plot of her own movie. A key exposition scene features dialogue between Joe, whose jaw remains clenched shut after being wounded in the face, and a decreasingly conscious man who is bleeding to death. Maybe a third of the words spoken are intelligible.
Ramsay does come up with one terrific setpiece, though, that any genre acolyte should appreciate. Joe’s initial raid on the house where the kidnapped girls are kept unfolds entirely on security camera footage that cycles through different angles so that sometimes we cut away quickly and sometimes we linger awhile on his actions. As a bonus, each time the angle changes, the music we’re hearing jumps back by a half second or so. The result is hypnotically, delightfully unnerving.
That’s far from the only time Ramsay plays with sound. From the very beginning, airplane engine drones and other noises seem constantly to be stacked on top of one another, creating an aural haze between the viewer and the movie. The more we learn about Joe and his likely post-traumatic stress from a lifetime of brutality that started from the very beginning, we come to understand that this effect is cluing us in on how he exists in the world. Out of necessity, he lives beneath a protective layer, not unlike the scar tissue that covers so much of his body. In Nina, who has experienced her own unthinkable trauma, he may have found someone who understands, another barely functioning vessel of pain.
Unfortunately, Ramsay vacillates between not following this emotional thread and hitting you over the head with it. By the time we get to the almost juvenile sturm und drang of the final act, that latter impulse has taken over and You Were Never Really Here becomes something like a third rate 90s grunge band, convinced that if it broods and glowers enough, it will seem important. That superficiality is especially galling when the subject matter is the sexual abuse of children, a life-shattering crime which the movie reduces to a mere signifier of widespread, banal corruption. That type of cynicism will likely appeal to budding, teenage film lovers just discovering Ramsay. But cynicism in itself is not powerful or even noteworthy. It’s just another way not to deal.