Like We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay’s most recent film is an adaptation of a novel whose dissonant and brooding sense of horror would seem to pose considerable challenges to being adapted to the big screen – Christopher Ames’ You Were Never Really Here, which details the fractured and fragmented subjectivity of a traumatized ex-veteran as he makes a life for himself rescuing abducted and abused girls in New York City. From the very beginning of the film, it’s clear, however, that Ramsay is determined to double down on the alienated prose style of the novel, as she opens with a series of deformed, erased and distorted human faces, before proceeding to a film in which the human face is never quite permitted to become the object of focus. While we may meet Joe, played by Joaquim Phoenix, in these opening moments, his face is perennially left out of the frame – and, even when we do see his face, his eyes are rarely illuminated, with Ramsay choosing to shoot him from above so as to occlude any clear facial expression. When he is lit, it tends to be by way of brutal daylight or garish fluorescent light that either flattens and caricatures his expressions, or else deepens the pockets of shadows around his eyes. Combined with the enormous beard that suffuses Phoenix’s head, and that bleeds seamlessly into his massive bush of hair, that ensures that even the key moments of pathos or significance never yield anything resembling a regular display of affect from him over the film’s ninety odd minutes.
In other words, You Were Never Really Here is, as the title might suggest, on a par with Casey Affleck’s I’m Not Here in terms of the radicality with which it captures and celebrates Phoenix’s post-actorly turn, since for large parts of the film he is simply physically present, doing little in the way of what would conventionally be called acting or emoting. From the very outset, that suffuses the film with a cold and austere sense of dehumanization, prompting Ramsay to shoot most of her scenes at chest level, as the camera gravitates towards lateral spaces and spectacles, such as corridors, trains and cars, with the passage of New York’s bridges, and their fractallated framing of car windows, train windows, and train corridors, forming a recurring node in the film’s syntax. Within that flux, we tend to see more of Joe’s body than we do of his face, but even then it feels disembodied, as he continually plays around with his own limits, whether by dropping a knife repeatedly to see whether he can remove his foot in time, or leaning over the edge of the elevated tracks until the train arrives at the last instant. In another kind of film, this might ramify as suicidal ideation, but there’s not even enough subjectivity for that here, with Phoenix instead promulgating a body language and haptic orientation that’s indifferent to the prospect of bodily harm, except for a certain mild curiosity about the limits his physique can withstand.
Gradually, as the film proceeds, we learn that this body language stems from a series of coping mechanisms that Joe developed in response to both childhood and military traumas, including placing a plastic bag over his head and counting down from a hundred to quell panic attacks. Yet these flashbacks never cohere into a consistent backstory, let alone a sustained articulation of character, as Ramsay more or less displaces Joe’s characterization by way of the mission that drives the film – to recover the daughter of a New York senator from a web of increasing political ramifications. Films with this kind of narrative often have a monomaniacal and masculinist drive, but, in keeping with Joe’s blankness, Ramsay continually intercuts the forward drive of his task with moments of visual particularity, stand-alone sequences whose precise materiality is utterly indifferent to the events taking place in the broader story. Similarly, while there may be quiet moments, the soundscape is overwhelming and overdetermined, and always in excess of the scene, bleeding diegetic and non-diegetic cues into an abrasive and aggressive funk. Drawing upon the kinds of propulsive scores that have been popularized by artists like Cliff Martinez and Onoeohtrix Point Never, composer Johnny Greenwood provides a series of propulsive motifs that initially seem to promise a fairly taut trajectory, only to oscillate between these motifs so indiscriminately that the film can never settle into a single groove, in what quickly comes to feel like an anarchic sampling of procedural sonics more than a sustained soundscape itself.
Even that sonic dissonance might give the film a certain aesthetic unity, but Ramsay and Greenwood also refuse to differentiate the soundtrack from the diegetic world of the film, as the most abrasively auteurist moments routinely subside back into the detritus of everyday conversation, making it impossible to tell what is sample and what is simply part of the scene, in a radical collapse of diegetic and non-diegetic noise that divests the film of any clear perceptual anchor or framework . No surprise, then, that while Joe’s mission might require him to navigate the city with the same expansive panache as Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver or Charles Bronson in Death Wish – the film is full of allusions to both New Hollywood releases – the city never accommodates itself to his demands, exuding an exoticism that nevertheless refuses to allow him a stable vantage point with which to register his exoticism, and in fact turns his very presence into a part of what makes it exotic as the narrative proceeds. As strange as New York might seem in his dazed state, then, it functions even more emphatically as a source of self-estrangement, gradually leaching him of the genre coordinates he adopts as a matter of course for embarking upon his mission. Unlike other vigilante films of this kind, then, You Were Never Really Here decelerates and disperses as its proceeds, moving towards a destination that dissolves before it. Even the moments of climactic violence are oddly devoid of signification, whether because they simply involve Joe repeating the same action over and over again, with no escalation or affect, or because they are relayed through security footage, or from an alienated distance.
Within that flux, Joe barely has time to get his face together from moment to moment, singing alphabetic and numerical songs to keep himself afloat until it starts to feel as if some great disruption has taken place to the hard-boiled syntax of the vigilante film. In particular, the propulsive masculinity ushered in by Nicolas Winding Refn utterly peters out here, as the combination of sensory diffusion and mid-level shots ends up wrenching the film’s perspective away from Joe and aligning it with the girls he saves, preventing them from being reduced to mere conduits for his vigilantistic self-realisation, as might occur in a more traditional genre exercise. When he does finally get to the climax and crisis of the film, then, he finds that the girl in question has already committed revenge and started to execute her escape without him, collapsing the two of them into a blank communion in which they are inextricably linked, and yet within which the hard-boiled lens once used to anchor that rapport has dispersed and dissolved into something more amorphous and unformed. Call it a revisionist vigilante film, then, a vision of this most conservative of American genres from the perspective of a British auteuse, as Ramsay suggests that the hard-boiled subject that Joe is supposed to occupy was never really there to begin with, and that this absence is, in some sense, the real subject matter of the films she so eloquently draws upon and dissects.