You Were Never Really Here (2017) does more than subvert or reject genre. Director Lynne Ramsay has turned pulp into 90-minute-Dostoyevsky, draining it of action or fun. In other words, she has humiliated genre. There are fight scenes – with Oldboy (2003) style hammer action! – but they’re abstracted onto CCTV monitors, jerky and monochrome. The protagonist – Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) – does have cool one-liners, but they are muffled under his beard and self-loathing. The implicit accusation is that these are tawdry thrills.
Ramsay is a master of ambiguity. In her latest the uncertainty revolves around the interior life of Joe, the hitman who finds new purpose rescuing a girl who’s been kidnapped and forced into sex work. He’s tender and gruff – I thought of Pauline Kael’s line about Robert Mitchum: his belly becomes an honorary chest. The ambiguity creeps around Joe’s emotional life. Does he identify as victim or abuser? Does he want to live or die? Is violence a burden or release? The indeterminacy the audience grapples with matches the indeterminacy of Joe’s thoughts. You may, in fact, start thinking a bit like Joe – somewhere between giving up and absolute commitment. On the other hand, You Were Never Really Here abandons ambiguity in favour of some explanations as to Joe’s behaviour. Unlike her two previous literary adaptations, Morvern Callar (2002) and We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), you leave the cinema with a sense of arriving at something definitive. Ramsay is still best placed to emulate the exquisite ambiguity of Claire Denis, and make the kind of films that demand continual interpretation.
There’s still a lot to admire. Ramsay beautifies objects and textures that most directors would pass over as mundane. During a chat with one of his employers, Joe crushes a Skittle between his thumb and forefinger, making an earthquake on the sweet’s sugar coating. There is a preponderance of plastic, and the material has rarely been as haunting or ethereal. Joe asphyxiates himself with carrier bags. He picks the cellophane off a roll of masking tape. And – in the film’s crowning scene – he faces his mother’s body, wrapped in a bin bag, as they sink to the bottom of a lake. A few strands of hair peek out of the black plastic, which becomes eerily fluid illuminated by one piercing bottom light. Flashbacks of war and childhood abuse transform ordinary spaces – closets and cars – into repositories of fear and resentment.
The representation of the sex industry in popular culture needs much more discussion. There is a tendency within thrillers to use child abduction, paedophile rings, and abuse as contexts for the action. The stakes are then taken to be built in to the scenario. In this case, this is in the service of building Joe’s complex character – giving him an opportunity for meaning and redemption. But it would be wrong to think that, just because Ramsay’s objective is worthier than cheap entertainment, her cursory usage of the sex industry is acceptable. You Were Never Really Here falls into the trap of depicting the most obviously abhorrent, extreme part of the sex industry – powerful men abducting children and keeping them as sedated slaves in brothels – in order to simplify the morality of the picture. The film doesn’t show any interest in the specificities of the real world. Ramsay has the same vague stance towards the politicians who run the brothel. It becomes a conspiratorial web of congressman and traffickers, but lacks the detail to indict any part of society, or the compassion to understand any of the people involved.