“It’s not about the notes you play, it’s the notes you don’t play.”
Miles Davis once said that about jazz, and although that statement has often been playfully ridiculed by many a comedian, there really is no better way to describe the work of director Lynne Ramsay. She’s built an entire career off the adage, “show, don’t tell” and the best example of this is her adaptation of the Jonathon Ames’s novella You Were Never Really Here.
Her latest film has been favorably compared to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and unless you’re Stevie Wonder, the similarities are hard to overlook. They both involve the day-to-day activities of an ex-soldier who’s slowly becoming a walking time bomb barely holding it together, whose path eventually intertwines with a child prostitute; but since Ramsay is a director who has absolutely no interest in theft or homage, the similarities are only surface level. The structure is familiar but the details she chooses to focus on, as well as the ultimate theme of the film, is what separates the two.
The film opens with a cryptic series of images. The burning of a photograph, an assortment of jewelry, some technological gadgets used for seedy activities and a motel room to do them in. We as an audience member have no idea whether we’re watching the aftermath of a serial killer or the methodical process of a professional and that withholding of context, is what makes Ramsay the Miles Davis of directors. She doesn’t derive pleasure from being purposefully obtuse, quite the opposite in fact. She caters to the smartest person in the audience and expects everyone else to follow.
She knows if she gives the audience the equation 1+1, they’ll eventually get to the number 2. But she’s also going to make them work for it. This isn’t a film for people that need to constantly turn to their date to whisper questions. If you pay attention, she gives you the answer and in terms of the beginning, the answer is both.
The man disposing of the evidence is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) and, much like De Niro’s Travis Bickle, he is barely holding it together. The easiest way to describe Joe is to reference a children’s cartoon. Joe is exactly like Stitch. Whether through the trauma sustained as a child or the tragedies he witnessed as a soldier (both shown in faint glimpses of flashback), he’s a Frankenstein’s monster cobbled together by anger and rage and with a strong propensity for violence.
Phoenix has consistently proven himself to be one of the greatest actors of his generation and although this may not be his greatest performance, it might be him at his most raw. He demolishes any pretense of ego by fully inhabiting the skin of a psycho and you believe every second of his performance.
There’s a line in Paul Schrader’s film Yakuza which says, “When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.” That’s essentially Joe in a nutshell. He’s broken beyond repair but unlike Bickle, he’s funneled that desire for murder into a business. He tracks down children who’ve been sold into prostitution.
In between assignments, Joe spends his time taking care of his mother (Judith Roberts) and their relationship is one of the best aspects of the film. Their scenes together are like a time machine to the seventies, where films weren’t afraid to stop the plot to spend more time with their characters. They bicker, they argue, they spend time singing familiar tunes while polishing silverware and they love each other. He’s her caretaker and companion and she gives him something to live for.
That and his job. Besides taking care of his mother, the only thing Joe is good at, is finding and then brutally killing the kidnappers of children. The opening scene establishes his process but leaves out one crucial element: his ball pein hammer. It’s his weapon of mass destruction but it also ties directly into his childhood. Once you piece together the meaning of his flashbacks, everything about his life will become crystal clear. There is no element of this film that’s included without purpose. Everything ties directly into either the theme of the film or helps inform the main character. Including the hammer and his profession.
Later in the film he’s asked by a politician to save his daughter but after the job is complete, things become complicated and the film switches gears from being a character study to a hardcore action film.
Or it would if Ramsay was any other director. But she’s not. While there’s certainly violence, the film never becomes an action film. This isn’t Taken or The Equalizer. In many ways, this is the anti-action film. The way the film depicts violence and how it’s edited, robs it of any catharsis. It never once glorifies murder and actually cuts away right before any actual kill.
Between it’s off putting subject matter and it’s mentally unstable protagonist, You Were Never Really Here is a film that doesn’t care whether you think it’s unlikable or ugly. I don’t even think it cares enough to entertain you. Much like the hero at the center of it’s story, it exists in spite of itself. It’s a dirty jazz solo in the age of pop music.
We need more films willing to beat their competition to death with a hammer and Ramsay’s just the director to do it.