Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here” goes out of its way to (1) show the audience how grimdark it is and (2) suggest that Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), its hitman protagonist is an unreliable narrator (Joe is undoubtedly not his real name) whose brain nonetheless dictates the film’s POV. The soundtrack mixes abrasive avant-garde classical and electronic music with ironically used pop songs, a technique Ramsay’s obvious inspiration Martin Scorsese picked up from gay director Kenneth Anger’s biker-fetish short “Scorpio Rising” and was later taken further by David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. Phoenix slicked his hair back into a ponytail, grew a bushy beard, and appears to have gained weight to sink into the schlubby role. Without making such attempts to change his look, he was far more convincing as an ordinary Brooklynite in James Gray’s 2008 “Two Lovers.”
“You Were Never Really Here” opens with a disorienting montage that reminds us how experimental a filmmaker Ramsay, who hasn’t made a feature since 2011, can be. Joe is a vet who specializes in tracking down teen girls who have become the victims of sex traffickers’ kidnappings. After completing one such mission, he feels empty and burned out; in fact, he tries suffocating himself. His next job requires him to hunt for 13-year-old Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a candidate for New York governor who has been captured by a shady group of pedophiles. Much bloodshed, not all of it committed by Joe, follows.
Ramsay’s last film, “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” alluded in its very title to a troubled teenager who commits murder. While it never showed violence on-screen, it filled the frame with substitutes for the blood he spills off-screen. It abounded with other red fluids, most memorably in a scene where kids throw tomatoes at each other till they’re splattered with juice. At first, “You Were Never Really Here” seems equally reticent. Joe beats up a man in a hallway to the Tarantinoesque tune of a pop song, but the image is shown in long shot from the perspective of a security camera. Given what’s happening, Ramsay opts for discretion.
That changes about halfway through this film, which then delights in shocking the audience with gore. At one point, Joe’s face is sprayed with another person’s blood. He goes on to perform DIY dental surgery on camera. I have the feeling Ramsay would justify these images by saying she’s showing the true ugliness of his line of work and violence in general. But there’s a palpable glee to the way a sudden cut keeps introducing us to the sight of gore. In the ‘90s, Japanese director Takeshi Kitano used this aesthetic of startling editing far more disturbingly but without the same sense that he’s smugly rubbing our face in how brutal life can get, such as in this film’s frequent use of deliberately unattractive cinematography and lighting.
Ramsay adapted her script from a novella I haven’t read by Jonathan Ames, whose work generally operates in a far more comic vein. In fact, one of his novels is a P.G. Wodehouse pastiche, and the short-lived HBO series “Bored to Death” he created offered up a lighthearted view of a Brooklyn writer turned detective. “You Were Never Really Here” aims to show the mental illness and vulnerability often underlying machismo. But it strives so hard to establish its own macho credentials in the first place that it’s not well equipped to undercut that same quality. Very late in the film, Joe is shown crying, obviously regretting the trail of carnage he has both contributed to and followed. The ending alludes to a deep self-hatred beneath his laconic tough guy act.
When Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” was released, many spectators thought it was too kind to its real-life protagonist, crooked stockbroker Jordan Belfort, and retroactively accused the director of too much sympathy toward other extremely flawed male protagonists of his like Travis Bickle, Jake LaMotta, and Rupert Pupkin. But if Scorsese felt any kinship toward them, it led to more complex works of art. Here, Ramsay is content to observe a screwed-up man and make a half-assed attempt to portray him as damaged rather than cool without showing any real distance from his view of young women as helpless beings in need of rescue.
“You Were Never Really Here” concludes with the worst ending I’ve seen so far this year in a new release. Obviously, I can’t reveal what it is. Let’s just say it aspires to an emotional intensity and narrative complexity it never earns. In fact, it misses by a mile. The film would need to go on for much longer to process what it tries to do. Granted, the credits sequence seems to acknowledge this demand for space.
Ramsay is a major talent who should get more work. So are Ames, Phoenix, and score composer Jonny Greenwood (who plays guitar in Radiohead and wrote the music for “Phantom Thread,” among other films). But all that added up to a movie that feels like a more-gifted-than-usual student’s attempt at aping the exploration of male destructiveness and urban nightmare landscapes in “Taxi Driver.”
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE | Directed by Lynne Ramsay | Amazon Studios | Angelika Film Center, 18 W. Houston St. at Mercer St.; angelikafi