You Were Never Really Here feels incomplete, but is full of beauty

Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest cinematic offering, You Were Never Really Here, feels incomplete. Joe, a hired guy and the protagonist (Joaquin Phoenix), is paid by a politician (Alex Manette) to recover his missing daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov)  from a brothel. Repeated flashbacks throughout the narrative reveal Joe’s past traumas, as do the thickened scars on his body, pieces of a defective puzzle that only partly discloses the atrocities that haunt him.

In true detective style, we have to pick through half-clues and the psychology at play in order to make sense of the plot

From the very beginning, we are introduced to Joe, an ex-vet suffering from PTSD, through unintelligible images and sounds, half-whispers, and half-mutterings. Extradiegetic and diegetic sounds blend together, adding to the confusion, and we  only get a half-picture of all the characters, gaining insight into each one through what is implied rather than what is said. In true detective style, we have to pick through half-clues and the psychology at play in order to make sense of the plot. It’s the kind of film that makes more sense the longer you think about it. No-one’s past is fully explored, but there are unspoken references to cyclical abuse and trauma, too terrible to be fully realised. The psychological effects upon the protagonist are brilliant in their observation.

We have seen the character of the troubled antihero in films such as Taxi Driver (1976) and Man On Fire (2004) following the formula of the alienated and morally complex man, often with an apparent deathwish, who is rescued by the (usually young and female) person he sets out to rescue. As with Scorsese’s oeuvre, the main theme is loneliness and intense isolation. Joaquin Phoenix, playing Joe, seems to contain his intense and melancholic character in his eyes. No one seems to be able to hold his gaze without reacting to their intensity.  At one point he is asked to take a photo of a group of girls. Cue a close-up of a girl’s face looking at him, tears streaming down her face. What has she seen?

Cue a close-up of a girl’s face looking at him, tears streaming down her face. What has she seen?

Stylistically the film mirrors the character of Joe, broken, fragmented and off-kilter. The discordant score by Johnny Greenwood complements the eeriness of the film as does the sense of timelessness.  There doesn’t appear to be any future, so day-to-day living is cut down to isolated moments when Joe flits between caring for his elderly mother and toying with self-harm, moving from moment to moment with no apparent resolution.

The security camera acts as a blanket for what is too awful to see up close

Scenes of violence can feel painfully real yet at other times feel veiled and distant. A sequence of Joe violently storming a brothel is shown through a security camera, but in the following scene, we witness him pulling out his own tooth which feels much more excruciating to watch. Apart from focusing on Joe’s pain, what the audience is privy to is a mimetic representation of how fragmented Joe’s mind is. He separates his job from his reality, and his psyche from his physical being. He would not be able to deal with the consequences of the world, the violence of which is separated from us through the gaze of the security cameras. The security camera acts as a blanket for what is too awful to see up close.

The entire film, off-kilter, oddly paced and incomplete in key ways, is nonetheless highly expressionistic and devastatingly beautiful. Ramsey alternates between visceral moments and melancholic, even poetic scenes which perfectly complement the alternate reality of the protagonist.

Samantha watched You Were Never Really Here as part of Cinema Rediscovered at Watershed.  Have you seen it? What did you think? Come chat with us about it on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram