It is testament to Lynne Ramsay’s virtuosity that the most shocking takeaway from You Were Never Really Here – a film that devotes a sizeable amount of screen time to Joaquin Phoenix dispatching paedophiles with a hammer – might be that we are witnessing only her fourth feature-length work. Seven years on from We Need To Talk About Kevin, Ramsay makes her return with an idiosyncratic and disturbing adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ titular novella.
Phoenix plays Joe, a Gulf War veteran turned child retrieval expert with an appetite for the brutal. When he is contracted to rescue Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the runaway daughter of a senator, he uncovers a child abuse conspiracy that pushes him to confront his past. Whittled to a lean 89 minutes, the outward narrative is so taught that it seems intent on foregrounding its own simplicity – Joe takes his ball-peen mallet, empties out a brothel, falls foul of corruption, then hammers in a bigger brothel.
Addicted to painkillers and suffering from PTSD, his splintered flashbacks punctuate the sinewy story thread. Fragments from the Gulf War, an FBI mission and Joe’s childhood shoot through, yet Ramsay wills a conscious lack of coherence here in a sensory appeal to the protagonist’s state of mind.
Ramsay selects her shots with a photographic and at times impressionistic eye, creating a bricolage of standout images that range from a wisp of hair rippling out of a submerged corpse to the crushed veneer of a jelly bean. Yet, while her sequences frequently confound expectations, it would be a misstep to label a single frame as arbitrary. It is precisely her ability to martial abstraction that elevates You Were Never Really Here to one of those rare examples in cinema: a work that moves towards a synthesis of matter and method. Precise and arresting visuals demand our attention but simultaneously manage to point beyond themselves to an unseen lying somewhere off-screen. The opening sequence, for example, takes us through a precisely controlled series of close-ups that both clue us in to the bones of Joe’s line of work and invite us to consider the gaps and blind spots between each cut.
The one-eyed stare of an onlooker as Joe teeters over the edge of a railway is displaced onto a skilfully replayed sequence involving his mother’s glasses, now removed from her “sleeping” body with a single bullet hole through the lens. Nina herself, brilliantly performed by Samsonov, rarely looks at Joe without one eye covered by her precisely-cut fringe. The real story here, after all, emerges from the tension between the tangible horrors that Joe and Nina confront imminently and the unseen past aggressions that they are forced to continuously replay.
Instead of regurgitating the pulp of her ingredients into yet another Taken-style rehash, Ramsay has truly reinvented her source material to craft a work that is overwhelmingly her own. Of course, comparisons will inevitably be made to the likes of Taxi Driver and Hardcore, and perhaps the most pertinent nod stems from the film itself as it quotes Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho.
But to dwell on these comparisons belies the uniqueness of Ramsay’s virtuosity and her startling ability to balance control and deliberation with instinct and intuition. In an age in which the industry appears more reluctant than ever to treat film as film, her approach to the entire process of adaptation could hardly be more welcome.