You Were Never Really Here, a new film from Lynne Ramsay.

You Were Never Really Here.

Lynne Ramsay is one of the few, genuinely exciting film makers working anywhere in the world, and You Were Never Really Here is her latest offering.

She arrived on the scene with Ratcatcher in 1999, which covers exactly the sort of terrain you’d expect from a first film, but in an unexpected and impressively enigmatic way. Next up was Morvern Callar, from 2002, which comfortably confirmed all of the promise that had been hinted at in her debut.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Mundane events, in what appears to be a conventional genre film, are presented in an off-kilter and distinctly left of field manner. And everything is transformed by her insistence on fully exploring the cinematic language and grammar at her disposal. So that sound is used every bit as expressively as the visual elements, and pace is as pregnant with meaning as any of the sparse if carefully considered lines of dialogue.

We Need To Talk About Kevin came next, in 2011. Ramsay’s adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s contentious novel was as viscerally disturbing as the source material demanded, and was one of the stand-out films of that year. So is this, her fourth.

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in You Were Never Really Here.

You Were Never Really Here centres around Joaquin Phoenix as one of those nebulous, violent fixers prepared to do the sorts of things that well brought up, middle class people wouldn’t dream of doing themselves, but which they are perfectly happy to pay others to do for them. When a high level politician’s 12 year old daughter is abducted and enslaved, Phoenix is dispatched to recover her.

Over the course of the film, we move back and forth between the sinister events of the present day thriller, and the equally dark episodes from his past. The abuse he suffered as a child, and his experiences as a soldier in whichever one of the US wars he was sent over to pointlessly partake in.

Boorman’s Point Blank.

You Were Never Really Here could have been, indeed is essentially, a genre piece. But what might have been little more than a conventional thriller is elevated into something significantly more substantial thanks to Ramsay’s very distinctive stamp. So that the sort of violence which ordinarily washes over us so easily is rendered shocking and even surprising because of the stylised way in which it is presented.

Rarely is anything shown in an expected manner, as key events take place off screen but are heard, loudly, or are seen at one remove, on the CCTV in the corner of a corridor. While Johnny Greenwood’s score, though sparingly used, further adds to the heightened sense of dislocation and the constant sense of threat.

Morvern Callar.

All the performances are pitch perfect and Phoenix is exceptional, but the real star of the show is Ramsay who delivers infinitely more in 90 minutes than just about any other film maker around manages to do in twice that time. And, although there are clear shades of John Boorman’s Point Blank, particularly in its dissonant, staccato editing, and of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in its themes, this is a triumphantly original piece. She might not yet have produced that definitive masterpiece, but Ramsay’s first four films, and particularly the last three, herald the arrival of a gloriously distinctive and impressively original cinematic voice.

You can see the trailer to You Were Never Really Here here.

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“We Need To Talk About Kevin” – Lynne Ramsay

Beyond the fact that the three greatest film makers in the world are David Lynch, David Lynch and David Lynch, the five or six serious film makers working in the medium today are Anh Hung Tran, Atom Egoyan, Julio Medem, Todd Solondz and Lynne Ramsay (but then what about Marco Bellocchio, or Scorsese…).

So the lukewarm response that the latest film from the latter evoked in Britain was surprising. Because We Need To Talk About Kevin is immaculate.

Ramsay made her debut in 1999 with Ratcatcher, an unusually lyrical and slightly detached look at growing up on a council estate. She followed that in 2002 with Morvern Callar, which was even more doggedly elliptical, and concentrated on evoking a mood and conjuring up an atmosphere rather than rigidly pursuing a narrative drive.

So few people familiar with her work can have been surprised at the way in which she approached adapting Lionel Shriver’s acclaimed novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. The slightly bigger budget and the presence of the relatively well-known Tilda Swinton and John C Reilly as the put-upon parents mean that it’s slightly more conventional than her two previous films. But it also provided her with the scaffolding on which to build an even more impressive construct that melds visual grandeur with sonic panache.

It’s hard to know what the critics in London had been expecting. Matthew Sweet managed to complain on the BBC’s Late Review that it added nothing to the horror genre. Well no. That’s because it’s not a horror film. While we’re on the subject, it’s pretty disappointing as bedroom farce as well.

Other critics complained about the heavy-handed symbolism. But it’s not symbolism that the film employs. Rather, there are a series of visual and sonic motifs that ripple and reverberate throughout the piece as a whole, and that reflect and connect the characters to their surroundings, sending currents and waves across the surface.

It’s not an enjoyable film, obviously, nor should it be. It acts instead as a companion piece to Gus Van Sant’s brilliant Elephant from 2003, which justly won that year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes. That explored the conventionally held view that the sort of kids who inexplicably open fire on their hapless classmates are completely normal. Kevin offers up the corollary to that. What if some kids are just bad (though the book it should be noted is more ambivalent of the question of blame.)?

Austere yet expansive, Seamus McGarvey’s pristine cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s insidious score combine to produce a work of rare cinematic quality. And, like The Lives Of Others, it eventually offers relief from its unremitting oppression. As with its very last line and gesture, the faintest glimmer of hope is finally allowed to break through.

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