A man in a modern city is paid to recover runaway girls taken for trafficking. His middleman admires his brutality. He dispatches his targets with a sixteen-ounce ball-peen hammer. He is “Joe.” Ex-Marine. PTSD. He is Joaquin Phoenix. He is also an implacable Walker, a hopped-up Lazarus like the undead protagonist of John Boorman’s Vietnam-era hired-gun hallucination “Point Blank” (1967).
In the majestically economical yet brutally poetic life-grasping death trip “You Were Never Really Here,” the fourth feature by Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”), a masterpiece that some reviewers have tried to set ablaze and burn to the ground in their own words, the Scottish filmmaker finds a pulse that is not radial, carotid or femoral, but figuratively cranial.
Memory, shattered like glass, etched like acid, memento mori, ye olde aide-mémoire, it slides, it shifts, it may misconstrue or wholly mislead: flashes, bursts, hurts. She is a pathologist of both damage and concupiscence. Ramsay is on a parallel wavelength to Terrence Malick in his “Song to Song” (2017) and “Knight of Cups,” (2015), she seeks transient consciousness in the bone and squish of brain: what electrical shocks and shorts are we composed of? How to demonstrate the torrid depths of that marvelous, menacing slipstream through image and sound, through music and modern mayhem?
How does one see, how does one listen, but mostly: why must one remember? Crunchy, galvanic, volatile, tactile and brutally, weirdly funny, “You Were Never Really Here” never pauses. The world is terrible beauty. Nearly every image is lapidary confection but without preciousness. (Do not trouble to decipher the extreme close-up of a green jellybean casing sugared to white between fingertips: in its instant, it is annunciatory poetry capturing a shredded consciousness.) The splinters of consciousness are not kaleidoscopic, but prismatic, fractions of consciousness like molecules that bend as they refract colors within spray of light. Cinematographer Tom Townend is a gifted noticer, too.
Drawing on Jonathan Ames’ novella, “You Were Never Really Here” has Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” in its bones, and its bursts of the work of a killer for hire are certainly prefaced by sleek work in Luc Besson’s “The Professional” (1994), the character’s PTSD anticipated by the metallic madness of Lodge Kerrigan’s terse terror, “Clean, Shaven” (1993). (Scorsese shot “Taxi Driver” on the streets of New York in summer 1975 during a garbage strike in forty days and forty nights; the nimble Ramsay had but twenty-nine.)
And yet. And still. This creature is its own elemental, primal organism. Working with editor Joe Bini, best known for twenty-seven features and docs in the past two decades by Werner Herzog, as well as Ramsay’s own “We Need to Talk About Kevin” and Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey,” she cuts to the bone and scrapes away flesh and sinew and scrapes the bone some more. More figuratively than literally, of course: while there are bursts of violence, most is registered as aftermath, or afterthought, a stutter-step that conveys will and action, but also the fresh memory falling atop and biting into earlier ones.
The score, by Jonny Greenwood, is as dense as the sensational weft and warp he wove for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread,” the mood more mercurial, like an infernal radio station in Joe’s head, always tuned to maximal disruption or distraction. (That would also include a couple of memorable matches of havoc to past-era pop.) Somehow, subjectively, it’s a beautiful day. With Judith Roberts, John Doman, Alex Manette, Ekaterina Samsonov. 89m. (Ray Pride)
“You Were Never Really Here” opens Friday, April 13 at River East, Landmark Century and Evanston CineArts.