“You Were Never Really Here” directed by Lynne Ramsay, has, predictably, drawn numerous comparisons to “Taxi Driver.” Like “Taxi Driver,” the film is an intensely subjective look at an individual traumatized by war who turns into a vigilante figure. Unlike “Taxi Driver” a remarkably present tense film that feels as if we are following Travis Bickle’s downward spiral in real-time, “You Were Never Really Here” splices memory and fantasy to create a mosaic-like story that bridges the gap between this seemingly inscrutable character and the audience.
This is a Lynne Ramsay film through and through, even if revenge thrillers are a bit out of the director’s oeuvre. A constant experimenter when it comes to editing and sound design, Ramsay is unafraid of potentially alienating the audience with nonlinear storytelling and heightened sound effects. The only other film I’ve seen by the director was her psychological drama “We Need To Talk About Kevin.” But these two movies alone prove that she is a filmmaker of boundless empathy. Similar to Martin Scorsese, she is willing to dive into the minds of some of the most twisted characters ever put to screen in a way that simply seeks to understand, rather than judge. Her experimentation is always for narrative- or character- driven reasons, they never feel self-indulgent or overtly stylish.
In fact, it is her style that tends to elevate the plot of “You Were Never Really Here,” an otherwise cut-and-dry genre film about sordid underbellies and lone heroes. There are what constitutes “action scenes” in this movie, but each sequence always has a unique execution. Take one such scene, where a rescue operation is seen entirely through security camera footage. It’s one of the few objective scenes in the movie, and even then it relates to the mechanical nature of Joe’s work. There’s another death that might be one of the most strange, melancholic, darkly comedic scenes I’ve seen all year, turning into a bizarre cocktail of emotion that perfectly fits the film’s twisted sensibilities.
There is also the way Ramsay is able to cut between the story’s various timelines with the finesse and precision of a surgeon. Near the beginning of the film, we feel like we have a handle on what is flashback, what is in present tense, and what is pure fantasy. But as Joe’s dive into madness progresses, these elements are mixed so frequently and so deceptively that it’s hard to tell where exactly we are, culminating in a scene that references, of all things, the ending of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Trying to discern what “type” of scene we are watching would be missing the point. It doesn’t matter whether what we are watching is actually happening or not because, for Joe, they all feel real. And in a film about how our experiences can alter every aspect of our lives, this approach feels exactly right.