To say I’ve seen Lynne Ramsay’s entire oeuvre is no great claim: she’s not the most prolific film-maker. Her early short films led to her poignant debut feature, Ratcatcher, which should have placed her as one of Scotland’s foremost emerging (female) directors. But it hasn’t been an easy path. You may ask why I put the word ‘female’ in parenthesis in the previous sentence… a point I will elaborate on, if not perhaps for the obvious reason.
After Ramsay’s second feature Morvern Callar she fell a little by the wayside, and again after she regained her position with a powerful adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel We Need to Talk About Kevin. With the current furore over school shootings, this film is surely worth another look. Ramsay once again chose to make a film with a strongly female point of view, even though Kevin’s mother is what you might call an ‘unreliable narrator.’
Her early short films, and Ratcatcher, also had a strongly female-focussed slant, with an emphasis on the children’s perspective too. While I’m loathed to apply a ‘gendered’ argument to this, I think this is a factor that distinguishes Ramsay’s style as a director. Yet watching You Were Never Really Here (without any prejudice, since I’d read only the blurb in the Filmhouse brochure) if I’d not chosen to review the film because it was by Lynne Ramsay, I would have initially said it was directed by a man.
This film is a serious punch in the guts. This is Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle (without the sleaze and saxophone) mixed with Leon (without the Lolita undertones) ratcheted up to a fast-paced thriller that assaults the senses and much more besides. A scarily pumped-up Joaquin Phoenix plays a complex and fucked-up war veteran on a mission to rescue kids from unpleasant situations. Unlike Bickle or Leon (but unnervingly similar to Kevin) his chosen weapon isn’t a gun. Let’s say he’s no Saint Nicolas throwing purses of gold down the chimney to save young girls from prostitution.
As well as the dizzying pace and disturbing imagery grabbing the attention from the outset, there is a thudding soundtrack which pounds away throughout the film. A feature of Ramsay’s work is her use of popular songs, and this is also the case in You Were Never Really Here – sometimes to darkly comical effect – but they are woven into the overall soundscape which is as integral to the piece as the action. It is aurally and visually dizzying and, at times, gut-wrenchingly disturbing.
So why did Ramsay, a female director, make such a ‘macho’ film, with – for the first time – a significantly male focalised character? Well, it might not be subtle but it’s certainly complex. If there’s one key element of female storytelling through the ages, it is that stories are never told in a linear way, but rather woven together like a patchwork quilt. This film wasn’t scripted and shot from a storyboard, but sculpted through shared experience and deep understanding.
Nothing is quite what it seems, and the constant flashbacks, jump-cuts and surreal episodes leave more questions than answers. For example, why did Ramsay need to repeat the Travis Bickle mystery (which to my mind is, did he really rescue the girl?) that Scorsese left with us as long ago as 1976? Is it because the horrors of child prostitution and trafficking continue today? You might not think this goes on in Ramsay’s hometown, but I vividly recall an article in The Scotsman some thirteen years ago highlighting kids being trafficked for prostitution on the streets of Glasgow. Believe or not, a very similar story ran in the same paper in November last year: girls as young as twelve being sold for sex.
So it’s entirely right that a woman director should make a film of this sort, not least for the ‘inclusion rider’ clause that Frances McDormand reminded us of at the Oscars, but also because this is a topic that doesn’t seem to be running its course like a bog-standard, linear movie plot. It goes round and round. While I’ve not said that much about the film, I will say this: watch it right to the end of the credits. Don’t miss a thread of this complex quilt. Oh, and this too: watch it multiple times.
You Were Never Really Here was released in the UK on 9th March 2018.