Within a minute of starting, director Lynn Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here has already established its disorienting tone. There is a man suffocating as the editing cuts around the sparse plot. It's a violent film, but not one that relishes the kill. Instead, it chooses to be like the scene that follows. As the hit man named Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) walks down a dark alley, he is assaulted. For Ramsey, this is probably the most apt way of describing the movie. Not only is it tough to understand the story, but it's assaulting the senses, creating a deeper understanding of trauma better than any film of the past decade. It's a visceral, disjointed experience that makes more sense as it falls further into fantasy. It's more than a story of one hit man rescuing a little girl named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov). It's about stopping the cycle of violence, no matter how futile that cause may be.
The plot structure is unconventional, much like Joe's regular life. In spite of never getting direct clues to his deeper personality, a lot of surface clues give a sense of his psychology. His mother seems neglectful, his profession requires him to be solitary and spry, and he keeps having flashbacks to one disturbing argument of his parents. To try and make sense of it would put the audience one step ahead of Joe. Instead, there is a need to live in that uncertainty, trying to justify the violence done upon the youth. What Ramsay understands above all else is that this isn't going to be convenient. There will be horrific moments perfectly edited throughout the film like a jump scare. A person who is traumatized doesn't have the luxury of escaping their demons. They show up when you least want them - much like Joe's missions throughout the film.
Another tool that Ramsay incorporates is the music, which mixes another excellent Jonny Greenwood score with retro pop tunes, such as "I've Never Been to Me" by Charlene. Greenwood's work in particular is electric, at times breaking up its demonic strings with a palpitating heart-attack, sometimes even destroying the rhythm entirely. At times it can be melancholic, dragging, and schizophrenic. In spite of its seeming lack of focus, it captures the anxiety of a man unsure of his life. It's esoteric, poetic, and way different from his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson. Instead, it works against the pop tunes that hide any emotional weight underneath upbeat melodies and vapid tunes. It all services as a call to Joe, something that is annoying and impossible: you must feel better. You must overcome this trauma and live a normal life.
Joe's life is far from normal by the time he gets to the crux of the story. It's one of the only parts that doesn't feel like a nightmare floating dead in the lake. It's when he meets Nina: a young woman stuck in her own cycle of trauma. In that way, they're kindred spirits. Without saying it, Joe applies his mantra to the experience. She must feel better. She must overcome this trauma and live a normal life. In spite of the slipshod approach that Joe has to rescuing her, he is the superhero in a gritty story. The only thing is that he's worn down by a variety of issues, including the grief that he has saved Nina, but he hasn't saved Nina. It's a trap that becomes impossible to escape, and it becomes clear as the discordant pop continues to sound uncomfortable next to the frowning protagonist.
The film is a meditative study of an emotional experience that is uncomfortable, scarring, and often impossible to capture on film. It has been done in a literal sense, but Ramsay becomes one of the few to capture it on a metaphysical level, putting the viewer into the experience head first, causing any headaches, heartbreak, and confusion to channel through them before Joe understands what happens to him. It's a challenging film, and one that proves why Ramsay should've made more films between We Need to Talk About Kevin and this. She is a purveyor of the visceral, and in the process understands something universal better than any medical doctor ever could say in a TED talk. It feels real, even if it feels heightened and dreamlike. It's a film that feels like everything could've been fixed if Joe had been hugged as a child. Everyone in the film likely could've had that, too. Instead, the tragedies continue on.
You Were Never Really Here is a revelation of cinema, capturing an intensity in a singular emotion better than any mainstream film. Ramsay tears apart basic conventions in favor of an experience, and in the process elevates the themes to something brilliant. Phoenix is great as usual, with Greenwood's score also being the equivalent of shaking an active telephone wire loose over water. It all is a bit rattling, creating an uncertainty that will make the viewer get lost in thought, possibly even their own experiences with anxiety. It's a powerful film, and one that is likely to get flack for its lack of "story" by regular audiences. The only issue is that the story is there. It's not where you look, but it's where you sense the pain and struggle is within the frame. It's powerful stuff, and hopefully the start of more regular Ramsay masterpieces of psychological exploration.