In You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay's status as an artist of uncompromising originality and skill is stronger than ever. Despite only making four features in nearly two decades, the Scottish filmmaker's work is studded with awards and accolades. Ramsay's films are atmospheric, gritty, disturbing and strangely redemptive. They're linked by characters whose narratives are heavily laced with violence, loss, guilt, alienation and trauma.
The protagonist in You Were Never Really Here, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a hired gun for a secretive yet high-profile investigation firm, has also suffered traumatic loss, but the details are shaky, shown in snippets that cause him to react with panic and physical discomfort. It's hinted that Joe is a combat veteran, but it's not at all clear what war he fought in. There's a brief but horrific flashback shot of a shipping container full of young girls, trapped and suffocated, and Joe is still haunted by them. Despite his fragile state, Joe's work as a ruthless mercenary is focused and efficient.
There's a moment near the beginning of the film when Joe visits his boss, John (John Doman), to find out about his next assignment. He listens while John describes the job: locating and rescuing a young girl who's been kidnapped by sex traffickers. He grabs a handful of jellybeans from a dish and lies down on a leather couch, eating them one by one. Speaking softly under his breath while John continues speaking, Joe dreamily asks himself, "Why are there never any green ones? I like the green ones." He then finds a green jellybean and crushes it slowly between his fingers before eating it. This detail is thrumming with so much visual and sensual significance, and it conjures images from her previous films: It's hard (for me, anyway) not to think about Kevin (Ezra Miller) in Ramsay's last film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, (2011) pouring Fruity Pebbles cereal on the countertop and lightly crushing the colorful pieces with his fingers before eating them. It's also hard not to think of James in Ratcatcher (1999), who yearned for the green meadows outside Glasgow, or the title character in Morvern Callar (2002), who wanted to lose herself in the verdant Spanish wilderness, or the fact that both of them had a craving for sweets.
Joe's latest assignment goes wrong when he is ambushed and must reinvent the protocols he's become used to. His personal demons loom larger, and it's unclear if he'll be able to overcome the new atrocities and obstacles thrown in his path. Not for the faint of heart, Ramsay's story of young girls stolen by powerful men nods to other recent powerful works with similar themes, like the 2011 Australian film Sleeping Beauty or the 2013 Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves, minus their fairy-tale symbolism. Joaquin Phoenix's portrayal of Joe, a man beset with visions of doom yet with a curiously animalistic survival instinct, is a white-hot tour de force.
Lynne Ramsay's films weave stories of tragedy and brutality ripping peoples' lives apart. But instead of maintaining a distant, artistically neutral vantage point, safely removed from gore and pain, Ramsay pulls us in, perilously, deliriously close. Her deft alchemical melding of cinema's moving parts – action, mood, sound, image, rhythm, language, color, music and symbolism – yields filmic works that are like moving medieval tapestries, tinged with human mysteries that feel ancient, and yet achingly familiar, swirling in the archetypal consciousness of pain, yearning, evil and redemption. It's surprising that Ramsay and Phoenix waited so long before merging their dark arts in this brutal, beautiful film; their collaboration is richly rewarding, even if hard to watch.