YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018, Lynne Ramsay)
Sifting through a bowl of jelly beans at his agent’s office, freelance thug Joe (a frightening, committed, explosive bottle of coiled rage in the hulking, scarred body of Joaquin Phoenix) says he likes the green ones, but can’t find any. Eventually he fishes one out, and instead of popping it into his mouth and savoring that which he adores, he smashes it between his fingers until it turns into sugary crumbs. Everything in Joe’s life, whether he loves it or hates it, will be destroyed if he has any say in it.
And that begins with Joe himself, who displays suicidal tendencies throughout (we’re introduced to him holding a plastic bag over his face — a pastime that flashbacks prove has lasted for decades). But he turns that self-hatred outward and funnels it into his job, which is the muscle that breaks up sex trafficking rings, usually by beating guys to death with a hammer to the face. He is theoretically on the side of moral righteousness, but wherever he goes, death follows: bloody, brutal, painfully brain-splattered death.
Ramsey’s previous film, 2011’s near-masterpiece WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (her film titles need a little editing, don’t they?) was one of the most unsettling experiences I’ve had in a theater. It does as much with its form and rhythm as with its story, which is still pretty intense (a fractured-chronology peek into the life of the mother of a teenage mass murderer). Seven years later, she hasn’t changed her tune; this is a very disturbing watch, one that ensures its audience leaves with sweaty palms and elevated body temps. Audio is key, and that includes both foley effects and soundtrack — the latter of which mixes ’50s sock-hop ballads with Jonny Greenwood’s brilliant score: it’s piercing, percussive, shrieking, and pulsating. The same can be said for Ramsay’s movie overall: the story is both thin and obtuse, but you feel the tone in your gut. Plants have sickening payoffs (like when Joe removes the glasses from his pretending-to-be-sleeping mother), and cycles of childhood violence do permanent damage. But it’s all about the form. Tight close-ups, gorgeous lighting, jagged cutting (the out-of-sync cuts in Joe’s siege on the brownstone is a thing of horrific beauty), silence-shattering bangs, blood and guts dripping and spraying onto porcelain and skin. There’s nobody who makes movies like she does, and if it means we have to wait 7 years every time, I’ll take it.