One of the most infamous scenes of onscreen cinematic violence is not actually as gratuitous in its visual depiction of brutality as you might think. Alfred Hitchcock’s staging of the shower stabbing in Psycho crams 78 camera setups and 52 individual cuts into 45 seconds of footage (which is where the documentary on the scene, 78/52, gets its name), bewildering its audience with a fractured visual narrative that makes us feel like we’re seeing more explicit violence than we are. Our minds fill in the gaps. Director Lynne Ramsay’s latest grime-coated vision of a real-world Hell sustains this technique for the entire runtime of a feature-length crime narrative. You Were Never Really Here is being frequently compared to the violent third act catharsis of Taxi Driver, which is understandable considering its on-paper premise about a mentally strained brute singlehandedly taking down a child prostitution ring while simultaneously uncovering a larger political conspiracy. Ramsay’s approach to violence is much less explicit & blunt than what’s delivered in Taxi Driver, though, obscuring its emotional release by instead focusing only on the violence’s anticipation & resulting aftermath, never the act itself. You Were Never Really Here’s artistic merits are found almost entirely in its editing room tinkering, searching for freshly upsetting ways to depict onscreen violence by both lingering on its brutality and removing all of its tangible payoff. It’s remarkably similar to the Psycho shower scene in that way, a connection acknowledged several times in the dialogue (thanks to serendipitous adlibbing from Dead Silence‘s Judith Roberts, who plays the would-be stand-in for Norman Bates’s mother in Ramsay’s film). If you’re looking for a prolonged echo of the bloody catharsis that concludes Taxi Driver you’re not likely to find it here, no matter how similar the two films might sound in concept.
Joaquin Phoenix stars as a mercenary muscle who specializes in rescuing underage girls from child prostitution rings. When this grueling job overlaps with a larger web of political intrigue involving a governor, a senator, and one particular underage victim, he suddenly finds himself alone in the world, attempting to take down an Evil force much larger than one man could possibly handle. He attacks this problem with brute strength by way of his peculiar weapon of choice, a ball peen hammer, but any minor successes he can achieve only open his life to more violent and emotional chaos. This one-dude-vs-a-human-trafficking-network narrative is now common enough to be its own genre, if not only through Liam Neeson’s recent catalog alone. Where films like Taken or Brawl in Cell Block 99 often feel like macho power fantasies, though, You Were Never Really Here shows little to no interest in offering any such release. Our broken macho man anti-hero cannot successfully beat his problems to pulp. Instead of making him come across like a heroic badass, his horrific line of work leaves him weeping, codependent with his elderly mother, and in desperate need of a kind stranger to hold his hand or kiss his cheek. Physical, masculine strength is a debilitating force for Evil in this picture. Our protagonist is haunted by past childhood, wartime, and occupational atrocities that we only glimpse in flashes, but leave him effectively crippled. In crime thriller terms, this is less the stylized romance of Drive than it is the dispiriting grime of Good Time. It resembles the skeletal structure of a Liam Neeson-starring Dadsploitation power fantasy, but its guts are all the emotional, gushy stuff most action films deliberately avoid. And because this is a Lynne Ramsay picture, those guts are laid out to rot & fester. We linger on her characters’ emotional pain without being offered any clear catharsis.
It never feels right to discuss a Lynn Ramsay film in terms of plot, since so much of her storytelling is paired own to elemental indulgences in imagery & sound. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood enhances the film’s emotional discomfort with slightly off-rhythm guitars, violins, and percussions. Any visual information missing from the obscured bloody hammer attacks is supplanted with the menacing specificity of other off-kilter images: burning photographs, mouths sucking on thin plastic, bloody tissues piling on an office desk, sugar peeling off a crushed jellybean, etc. If the film draws an aesthetic comparison to another title in Ramsay’s (depressingly limited) filmography it’s Morvern Callar, her most strikingly grimy descent into emotional chaos to date. Not only does You Were Never Really Here share that film’s impossibly dark humor and (despite its absence of heavy Scottish accents) necessity for subtitles, it’s also at its core an editing room achievement in cinematic sight & sound. This may be Ramsay’s closest adherence to a genre structure to date, outweighing even the Bad Seed & Omen vibes of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it’s deeply seated in the increasingly fractured mental space she’s been carving out as far back as Ratcatcher. The film’s security camera sequence is also her most impressively staged set piece outside the hellish house party that opens Morvern Callar, a very high bar to clear for any filmmaker. Whether you want to compare individual details from the film to Taken, Psycho, Taxi Driver, or any number of past stylized crime thrillers (Nocturama also comes to mind, based on the fractured imagery of its own security cam sequence), there’s no denying that this is pure Lynne Ramsay. The director obscures, subverts, deconstructs, and viciously tears apart a traditionally macho genre until its only viable comparison point is the furthest reaches of her own sublimely upsetting oeuvre.