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.