You Were Never Here: Lynne Ramsay’s Arty, Moody, Ambiguous Tale, Starring Joaquin Phoenix

In 1999, the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay burst upon the movie world with a splashy directing debut, Rat Catcher, which world premiered at the Cannes Film Fest to great acclaim.

Like other women directors, her output has been small, smaller than that of her male counterparts. She has made only four features in a career spanning two decades.

Even so, there’s anticipation among critics for her films: Ramsay is one of the most experimental figures in Western world cinema.

Ramsay’s films have a sensory impact, they’re designed to spark questions rather than provide straightforward answers.

Ramsay is obviously attracted to horror, or rather to the horrible aspects of life.

Her last two films were based on literary sources: We Need to Talk about Kevin and the new You Were Never Really Here, adapted from novels, by Lionel Shriver and Jonathan Ames, respectively.

In each, the narrative is broken up with brief visions of other scenes which might be occurring in the past or in the future, or in someone’s mind.

These hint at darker possibilities beneath disturbing scenarios, forcing the viewer’s imagination to go travel to uncomfortable places on its own.

Ramsay teams up with Joaquin Phoenix, a chameleon-like actor, here showing as a bulky, shambling, half-hidden behind a bristly beard, alternating between sociopathic violence and awkward sensitivity.

“They said you were brutal,” a future employer tells him, wondering if he has the right man for the job. “I can be,” he mutters.

It’s not entirely clear if Joe is a private eye or a hired thug, a man committed to rescuing teenage girls from sex traffickers.

His latest case involves the kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov​) of a senator (Alex Manette​).

He’s a silhouette, a body shot from behind, a voice uttering gruff instructions over a close-up of a cab door.  This visual fragmentation echoes his tormented, fractured personality.

An early glimpse of his capacity for violence is followed by a series of scenes that show his tender relationship with his grotesque mother (Judith Roberts), who shares his dingy New York apartment.

This unnamed character is first introduced while watching Psycho on TV, leading him to mimic that film’s famous shower scene, alongside Bernard Herrmann’s​ screeching score.

Jonny Greenwood’s score is bold and audacious, as was his work with Paul Thomas Anderson, ranging from atonal strings to jangling guitars and electronica.

Other key moments involve pop songs, used to create unlikely connections between the characters.

Every element in You Were Never Really Here happens abruptly, and can be broken off at any moment.

Ramsay leaves the viewers guessing–we are never sure what the next image or sound would be like, or when it would come.

There are only rudiments of a plot. Most of what we see remains tentative, hypothetical, shadowed by the possibility that all is not what it seems.

Once again, Ramsay takes the premise of a violent exploitation movie and turns it into an arty, moody, and ambiguous feature.