“…now, you can run, you can hide, or you can start to live like human beings again. This is our Waterloo, baby! You want your city back? You gotta take it.”
—Fred Williamson, Vigilante
Lynne Ramsay’s methods have become more concentrated, more specialized. When she began, her films found her gesturing at the edge of conventional psychology through lightly surreal abstraction. A rat tied to a balloon, a nocturnal supermarket bursting with song, her typical bricolage of light and found objects where every source feeds into a unified color scheme: all these elements say what her paralyzed or stunted protagonists could not. The world ironically reflected their darkness, their optimism, or their depression. Since 2002’s Morvern Callar she began a sort of narrowing of her emotional concern. Her characters wear masks of rage, of depression, of guilt, and fear. Music, color, light, objects and even people seem to reflect their inner turmoil. A parade of children trick or treating in 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin are nothing less than a ghoulish ectoplasmic externalization of a mother’s guilty conscience. Ramsay’s heroes cannot say how they feel, so Ramsay’s frames and sound design scream for them.
You Were Never Really Here is her loudest cry yet, because the pain she’s sculpting can’t even be contained in the hulking frame of her protagonist. ‘Joe’ is played by a gigantic Joaquin Phoenix. He’s got battle scars from military combat and psychological ones from his alcoholic father’s long ago abuse. He now wields the same make of hammer his dad used on his mother (Judith Roberts, the lady across the hall in Eraserhead) when she was young and beautiful. He goes on errands of mercy, rescuing lost girls to make up for the caravan of women imprisoned in his memory that he didn’t save. He’s trapped in the womb of foundational trauma, realized by the caul-like plastic bag he keeps threatening to use to kill himself. Suicide, or the threat of it, is practically all that centers him. He’ll nearly kill himself something like a half dozen times during the film’s incredibly lean runtime. He’ll hear his mother’s screaming in his subconscious as he drifts through his violent and fractured present. He looks after her now that she’s infirm and elderly, his one tie to normalcy. As is the way of these things, no relation or understanding Joe once had will outlast the credits.
You Were Never Really Here borrows and shaves the kind of ruthless plot development of Ridley Scott’s The Counselor, in that the minute Joe takes his latest mission his life is already over. His suicide fantasies come to seem perversely appropriate because they allow him control over the destruction of what he knows. His greatest fear, which becomes realized, is that the jaggedly manicured blank he’s cultivated for an identity—no friends, no paramour, no car—will turn into his own likeness. After accepting a mission to rescue a rich runaway named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), it takes the distance from pick-up to drop-off for every domino in his life to topple. His boss (John Doman, doing much with about ten minutes of screentime) vanishes, his charge is re-taken by crooked police, his neighborhood familiars are killed, and then the shadows close in on Joe. He reacts as violently as you might expect, but as Lynne Ramsay is still more interested in blood than bloodletting it’s a good deal less explicit and a good deal more eccentric than expected.
The broadest outline and setting of Joe’s righteous skull denting are straight out of Ed Koch’s New York, a place of porn theatres and pimps. Joe finds Nina in a brothel full of under-age girls and bloated men, passing women in miniskirts hopping out of ride shares. The signifiers have changed, but when Ramsay’s tiger-eyed camera finds it, the feeling is the same. William Lustig and Frank Henenlotter once turned their cameras on and found the scuzziest, most unforgiving streets in the world, where horror and violation swam like Esther Williams through every piss-soaked alley. This is Lynne Ramsay’s update of Lustig’s Vigilante or Henenlotter’s Basket Case, where lonely, broken creatures go on bloody revenge missions in cities lit like surgeries. Joe is a different kind of mythic, 80s figure, like Conan the Barbarian with chemical burns, a mangy beard and a beer gut. He, too, has no tongue for praying, and the few words he finds travel with love to his mother’s ears. He doesn’t feel much external pain and bullets seem to pass right through him because his brain is constantly charring up thanks to the flame of his extraordinary inner suffering. How could being shot in the face compare with the knowledge that he stood by while his father beat his mother? Joe’s emotional traumas make him something like a male Ms. 45, an angel of bloody justice trying to tip the scales against perverts everywhere.
Ramsay’s abstractions take their most productively aggressive and abrasive form here, throwing Joe’s agonies at us like grenades. Ramsay unleashes confounding shrieks from his past, piles of dead bodies, his mother’s voice, the curiously strong impression made upon him by Nina and her possibly drugged-up peculiarities. The map of his environment and his mind is made clear only through gradual exposure to the shrapnel lodged in his memory. It slowly becomes clear that not only was his father’s abuse foundational, it seems increasingly like he’s possessed by the old man’s spirit every time he picks up his hammer.
Phoenix is impressively huge as Joe, which gives Ramsay the added gift of being able to segment him with her camera, to carve him up like a Christmas ham. His unruly beard, his oddly shaped torso, his heavily falling feet, everything becomes the subject of a shot at some point. Her objectification of Phoenix’s body descends from Sergei Eisenstein’s treatment of Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible. In Eisenstein, every part of his body is used to its fullest compositional potential to mimic the distribution of goods and skilled work under socialism. In Ramsay's film, Joe’s body is as segmented as the pain that builds his personality. Every blow he receives is equal to some harm done to him by the blithely horrifying world he knows. Every time he tries to end his life it’s to release himself from the grip of history, like a medieval doctor probing for demons in a burdened mind with a hammer and chisel. Ramsay cuts up every piece of his identity because we are all now the living map of our scars. Just because a city is cleaned and changed, doesn’t mean it isn’t still home to bad men. And just because a man can be tender with his mother does not mean he will not murder whomever he wants. When he loses his grip on what’s real, who’s a friend and who’s a foe, the love and the pain twist up inside each other. A duet with a dying victim is maybe the film’s best wrong moment, but there are many. The film means to spin off-kilter, as if it’s got only one hand on a slab of clay wrapped round a pottery wheel. The only way to disentangle the misfiring synapses is to vanish, to disappear, and take all the pain with you when you go.