If there is one director who knows how to tell difficult and heartbreaking stories by simply hinting at the dramatic beats through the use of moving images, it’s Lynne Ramsay. The Scottish filmmaker spent a good portion of the 21st century telling stories of human struggle and existential angst while simultaneously filling the current cinematic landscape with beautifully memorable moments. Most known for her 2011 festival hit, We Need to Talk About Kevin, which dealt with the life of a mother whose son committed a high school massacre, Ramsay is one of the rare examples of an artist whose mantra follows closely the show, don’t tell technique. In an age where most movies are too afraid of letting the viewers figure things out by themselves, where each action or backstory is hammered home until we know each thread of the story by heart, it is refreshing to see a filmmaker who is able to work for major production companies like Amazon Studios while still maintaining a personal, uncompromising artistic vision.
Ramsay’s 2017 film, You Were Never Really Here perfectly encapsulates the filmmaker’s eye for detail and the tendency to subvert a viewer’s expectations, often changing the way we respond to movies that deal with the kind of themes that You Were Never Really Here deals with. On the surface, it is a straightforward story of a war veteran who, upon his return home, decides to work as a contract killer who saves underage girls from the hands of rich pedophiles. The protagonist, Joe, suffers from PTSD related to not only his experience in the military but also his childhood in an abusive household.
What Ramsay does in first order with this kind of premise is simple: she sees through it and sees how ridiculous and predictable it can turn out to be if handled the wrong way. The wrong way being a conventional action thriller that uses the protagonist’s past suffering as a valid excuse for his brutal means of expression (his preferred weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer).
In Ramsay’s hands, You Were Never Really Here becomes a quiet meditation on trauma, survivor’s guilt and alienation in a misogynistic society.
Joe, played by a never-better Joaquin Phoenix, is a character of many shades. On paper, he’s the classic anti-hero for whom we root for because he’s strong, skilled and in the end, kills with a clear purpose in mind. On screen, Joe is a shell of his former self. He’s what’s left of a once innocent teenager who may have fled home to escape its violence and found himself in even greater danger in some foreign land. That’s where his spirit was ultimately defeated. And although he has a brutal way of carrying himself in broad daylight, he still manifests the traits of a much younger, much different person. Such detailed character aspects are always present in Ramsay’s films as she spends a considerable amount of time before shooting anything, closely working with the actors to develop their backstories, their tics, their kinks and weaknesses in order for them to merge their own personalities with the character they’re playing.
For Joaquin Phoenix this was the perfect opportunity to merge his own demons from the past to Joe’s. Joe, unlike Keanu Reeve’s John Wick, doesn’t fit the bill as the handsome yet scarred hunk with a passion and skill for killing other human beings. He’s a man whose world has been turned upside down from the very beginning and now he’s tired of trying to make sense of it. He’s found his place in society and found a role that fits his abilities. Yet, deep down he’s preserved some of that innocence he once had within him. For one, he still remembers his mother’s lullabies from when he was a child and whenever he’s distressed, consumed by his worst fears and memories, he sings the alphabet song.
As mentioned before, an essential aspect of Ramsay’s cinema is her eye for detail. Details surround her characters constantly (think of the blood-red cans of tomatoes behind Tilda Swinton’s character in We Need to Talk About Kevin when it dawns on her what her own son has done) and are often used to convey the heightened emotional reality these characters are living in.
In You Were Never Really Here, details provide depth to Joe’s traumatizing past without every confronting it head-on. Ramsay uses the camera to pick upon Joe’s inner outbursts of violence by focusing on a candy he slowly squashes with his fingers or the scars covering his body hinting at physical suffering from the past or blood smears on a tissue which he used to clean the hammer he used to fracture someone’s skull. These details are then expanded within Ramsay’s world. For example, as Joe waits for the subway train to arrive, the camera captures a woman standing next to him, her cheek visibly bruised beneath her left eye. It is a moment that is there only to hint at something crucial to the story, without directly addressing it. Joe doesn’t walk up to her, asking if she’s alright. There is no need for us to explore that woman’s story. Ramsay simply encourages us to consider Joe’s surroundings and enrich our viewing experience.
Moreover, violence in Ramsay’s films is rarely directly addressed. Being drawn to other things and wanting to escape the oldest cinematic tropes in the book, Ramsay captures violence mostly by looking at the aftermath of it. Not only the physical aftermath, including gun-shot wounds, broken necks and fractured bones, but also the emotional one; characters left breathing heavily as the adrenaline begins to leave their body, characters breaking down into tears or on the contrary, characters not fully realizing the gravity of the things they’ve just witnessed.
In You Were Never Really Here, the (un)emotional counter-part to Joe is the young girl he sets out to rescue, Nina. Nina sees violence but doesn’t respond to it until the very end. While Joe is consumed with hurt and anguish to the point where he must let it out and either inflict the same kind of pain on others or further inflict on himself, Nina simply watches on as events unravel before her eyes. This doesn’t make her another tired cliché of the little girl who ends up being the sidekick to the movie’s protagonist. Ramsay gives Nina enough emotional depth by hinting at the things this girl may have survived whether it is episodes of sexual abuse or her family’s emotional absence when growing up.
In the rare instances when Ramsay doesn’t have a choice and must direct a violent sequence, she re-invents the way we respond to violence on screen. In You Were Never Really Here, when Joe enters a luxurious brothel to find and rescue Nina, Ramsay uses surveillance camera footage to capture the bloody violence. This way we can’t really get the sense of action. We see fuzzy, blurry white and gray images of men struggling in empty hallways, with Joe making his way up to the third floor of the establishment. Ramsay said while presenting the film, “I don’t like the violence. It’s really about the violence in his [Joe’s] head, a psychological violence.“ Which is most apparent when our expectations of what violence on screen typically looks like are under-cut by Ramsay’s suffocated, distant depictions of people inflicting physical pain on each other. By making such a bold, visual decision, Ramsay aims to put us in a different frame of mind while interpreting the images we’re seeing.
Rarely do we see such commitment and perseverance in communicating one’s vision to the world as we see with each movie directed by Lynne Ramsay. The Glasgow native often tells stories that most directors would steer clear from. The settings and the characters she chooses to work with are always shaped according to her worldview but with enough pieces missing for us to fill in the blanks ourselves. There are no wrong answers in Ramsay’s cinema. There are only stories and endless possibilities for new ones. Her keen eye for detail is infectious as we grow more and more compelled in deciphering the meaning of a certain moment or object because we’re convinced (by Ramsay herself) that there may be some unique truth even in the most mundane or banal object within the frame. When I’m watching a film by Lynne Ramsay, I feel like I’m rediscovering all over again how to watch movies. Because at the end of the day, movies are about finding personal truths that resonate for each one of us differently. In Ramsay’s cinema, those truths are everywhere.