Retreading but also, crucially, retexturing Taxi Driver, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here casts both a severe shroud and a diaphanous aura. Silent and somehow graceful, it suggests a world that could float away with every moment, ever-closer to crumbling with each second that passes on the screen. Yet, while it’s constantly dissolving and possibly evaporating, it’s also a heaving, brutish beast of a picture A huge, unapologetic mass of cinema. A giant hulking fucking thing of a film. Most importantly, while scores of films trade in corporeal violence and fewer still in existential disturbance, Ramsay’s picture is the rare film that feels truly, inescapably dangerous. Not because it depicts violence, mind you, or documents any external tragedies – although it undeniably does both – but because it casts us adrift in the askew, hostile, truly broken-down headspace of a phantom man with Ramsay’s diabolically refined, ruthlessly sawtooth craft as our collective Charon. It’s a psychic, predatory tremor of a film.
An inverted-stalker picture, the film’s central character – and its state of mind – is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex-soldier who currently works as a mercenary or a problem-solver, a low-class, ball-peen-wielding Eddie Mannix. At the moment, he takes order from McCleary (John Doman), working through intermediary Angel (Frank Pando), which generally involve rescuing physically, mentally, and sexually abused children. During these rescues, he weaponizes not only his hammer but his extreme efficiency and pitiless indiscretion about murdering anyone in his path. Currently on the hunt for Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov), daughter of New York state senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), Joe balances his time on the job by helping his ailing mother, played by Judith Roberts, and (possibly suicidally) teasing himself with knives that he holds over his head and plastic-bags that nearly suffocate him.
But most importantly for the film, Joe spends his time batting away toxic tremors of violent, half-forgotten pasts that cut into the film spontaneously and suddenly, granting the picture a volatile visual combustibility courtesy of Joe Bini’s astoundingly discourteous editing. Not only rattling our brains, the elusive memories of the past bespeak an extraordinary weight Joe obviously bears. They stab the narrative with incisions of past moments in his life, mostly childhood trauma and people he has failed to save. Each image is a still-convulsing seizure of a not-dead corpse, a memory he cannot quite escape but which he either consciously scrambles, so as to distort, or ultimately fails to narrativize linearly in his head. As depicted, Joe is a man who cannot narrativize his life in the present, or who willfully avoids such linearity.
The editing also keys us into the film’s dominant idiom of cryptic, blood-soaked impressionism, less because Ramsay’s film seeks to analyze life as a series of hastily-sketched moments than because it’s terrified of what a full portrait of this external world might impart upon us. Make no mistake, You Were Never Really Here is an extraordinary coup de cinema, a fractured-bone of a film held together by duck-tape. It skitters around on the screen, rushing to its conclusion not out of exuberant glee but out of the sheer angst of what might be chasing it, or as if the film is afraid of looking behind itself at the carnage it has wrought in its wake. Working, conspiratorially, with the feverishly paranoid collage of edits – a cross-hatch of deranged, frayed edges – the film lurches around enlisting a murderer’s row of talent, from Tom Townend’s simultaneously shuddering, shimmering, and stabbing cinematography to Jonny Greenwood’s ferociously shard-riddled, deliriously atonal score, the negative-mirror-image of his sublimely discordant work on Phantom Thread.
It’s all excruciatingly decentering, except the film never has any pretense toward a center, let alone any semblance of normalness which the film is a disruption or interruption of. The images refract rather than merely reflecting their content; they do not merely observe events but discordantly unsettle their electrons, expressing a sonic and visual milieu rather than simply telling a story or imparting information. It’s an extraordinary defamiliarization of the normal, a confrontation with the senses and their limits. It isn’t pure cinema – it has a narrative, after-all, or at least the sketch of one – but if you’re looking to prove to someone that cinematic images are more than mere receptacles of narrative or thematic content, Ramsay’s film plays like cinematic toxic shock treatment.
And I cannot forget, let alone deny, Phoenix. Arguably the most daring and fearlessly courageous lead actor working in Hollywood (or thereabouts) today, he uses this film to project an astonishing paradox at the film’s center. Joe is a black hole of a man characterized through a truly full-bodied physical performance, albeit a full-bodied performance of a man who seems unable to understand most of his body. Hiding beneath his haunted bramble of a beard, a baseball cat shrouding his face, Joe is a bear in sheep’s clothing, but also a frightened rabbit. Not to mention a mental tornado of past tragedies, ghosts he both resolves and fails to resolve by working with a single-minded determination, dealing out violence and subjecting himself to further punishment perhaps in hopes of retribution for his failure to rescue others in his past. His present constantly evaporating around him even as he is uniquely honed in on all the details of his surroundings, Joe is a man we confront inductively.
He’s also a traumatic and tragic soul, albeit still a violent man in a film which has little sympathy. A film, furthermore, which trades the serenity or ecstatic bliss of transcendent revenge – the stereotype most other man-on-a-mission films trade in – for a far more inspired mood: the aimless half-presence of shambling through the world with only the most tenuous of connections to life as we know it. To wit, while Scorsese toxically etched the finale of Taxi Driver, the obvious inspiration here, as a volcanic eruption of cinema, a tornado of sensory presence, Ramsay hides her centerpiece moment – a similar dark plunge into a snake’s den – at bay in the shadows. She chooses not to actualize her protagonist’s violence as a shocking mental release, but rather, to intermittently glimpse it through a series of black-and-white, fuzz-stricken video cameras helplessly unable to participate in the action.
Or, rather, they participate by viewing from afar without having to get their non-existent hands dirty, much like us, the mediated viewers who watch in the dark of this enigmatically shrouded, but nonetheless primordial and pulverizing, film. Shuffling around at once affectlessly and heavily affected, like a Bressonian gaze on a Fullersque milieu, Ramsay’s film could be called collapsible into an exercise in style, a showcase for mood at the cost of social commentary. But in moments like Joe’s technologically-gleaned descent into hell, Ramsay’s cinema explores its own failure to truly rescue its characters, to truly bring their tragedy to light, even to visualize the horrors that lie in wait around us, suggesting cinema as spectator-sport and then questioning its own ability to spectate. It suggests Joe not as a conduit for our Pavlovian bloodlust or a proxy for our reptile brain, a man we secretly are or want to be once we strip away the niceties and decorum of civilization. Rather, Joe is a half-glimpsed phantom, a drained wanderer or a moral abyss who the film itself can only tentatively visualize, and who we cannot easily understand.
Perhaps, of course, Joe’s is a life we know in a roundabout way, but Ramsay’s film never freights itself with the weight of 21st-century ennui. While other films might ennoble themselves with Thematic Points or tidy themselves up around a central thesis, You Were Never Really Here instead activates a poetic expression of life with wider, almost cosmic thematic valences through its very style. Right up until its rusty-nail of a final scene, the film twists a knife in our senses. It’s a oneiric sensory tapestry, in its own way, but a dream which can curdle into a nightmare with the wrong turn of one’s attention, as if all that separates life from death is the blissful ignorance of not tilting one’s head down the wrong corridor.
Which is to say, although Ramsay’s film is a vicious scrawl of a diseased world, You Were Never Really Here is possibly the only film in recent memory to shade its man-on-a-mission plot with something more conniving and hardened than a thin, often ironic veneer of flimsy auto-critique. While other films entertain us with violence and then hedge their bets with half-hearted, audience-indicting codas, Ramsay affords us no such safe passage. The film isn’t a hectoring slap on the wrist that tricks us by entertaining and then decrying its own essence. In lieu of a revenge fantasy with an eye on doling out divine vengeance tempered merely by a teasing wink of self-skepticism, You Were Never Really Here is truly unsettling, unmistakably committed to an unfathomable and depressingly quotidian understanding of the universe that provides Joe, and us, no outs. Even its final moment, an acerbic elegy for a life not lived and a teasing premonition of one that might yet still be, is not simply mocking us with a nasty smirk but wishing for a genuinely hopeful future. But it’s a vision that Ramsay seems to fear may ultimately be hollow, as if any hope or possibility of non-delusional connection for Joe – including companionship between him and the film audience – was whittled away by the spleen-shiv edits and then gutted by the truly corrosive score long, long ago.