You Were Never Really Here. That’s a strange and unsettling title for a film. But it perfectly fits this new picture, the fourth feature from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, well known for immersing himself in a role with a degree of intensity rarely encountered in movies. He plays Joe, a heavily bearded, sullen and taciturn Iraq War veteran, a loner who has made a living as a kind of brutal detective for hire, hunting down missing kids and hurting their kidnappers—his weapon of choice: a hammer. His only close relationship is with his aged mother, played by Judith Roberts, whom he visits from time to time, taking care of her bills, groceries, and medications. He gets hired to find the young teenage daughter of a politician, whom he traces to a child prostitution ring, but the job goes wrong and he’s caught up in a violent spiral of forces greater than he can control.
On the surface, then, this seems like a standard crime revenge story, but Ramsay has something different in mind. We can only piece the story together from Joe’s point of view, which is that of a victim of severe trauma, from childhood, from the war, and apparently from a career in law enforcement of some sort. The flashbacks are eerie glimpses of pain and crisis. Gradually we can see, as if reflected in shards of shattered glass, Joe’s sadistic father terrorizing his mother and him as a child. We witness him in the present playing with self-destruction, putting a plastic bag over his head, dangling a sharp knife over his face.
Phoenix is a very strong presence, but the peculiar style of the film, the real source of its power, is in the editing by Joe Bini, the music by Jonny Greenwood (lead guitarist for Radiohead and now one of the premier composers in film), and most of all, sound design, by Paul Davies. Sound effects echo in Joe’s head throughout, soft or loud depending on the situation. Outside in New York City, the ambient noise becomes overwhelming, giving us a sense of being engulfed by the world. More subtle sound effects take place as if embodying the underlying shock and dread of Joe’s hyper-vigilant approach to the world. There’s a lot of blood in the film, but Ramsay often cuts away to the aftermath of violence, when Joe has already moved on to some other scene or event. In a sense he is absent from his own story, split off from himself, something hinted at in the title You Were Never Really Here.
The screenplay was adapted by Ramsay from a book of the same title by Jonathan Ames. It gradually dawned on me while watching that the picture uses elements of the crime film genre as symbols depicting severe traumatic experiences. The entire movie is really a symbolic acting out of repressed memories. Trauma has been, in fact, a central concern in all her films, especially childhood trauma, going right back to her first feature Ratcatcher in ‘99, and continuing since then through Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin. You Were Never Really Here is at the same time her most direct and most abstract treatment of this central idea. In keeping with her commitment to her artistic purpose, she refuses to offer resolution or closure. Those looking for the satisfaction of what we usually call a “thriller” should stay away. As in actual trauma, the story of You Were Never Really Here doesn’t end. The best one can do is survive, and perhaps heal from some of the most painful wounds.