Lynne Ramsay makes movies about people on the edge, people up against the wall, people trying -- and sometimes failing -- to claw their way back out of existential holes. Her films reveal that she understands something elemental about brokenness, and that she can convey it particularly well through her mastery of form — in her work, composition, performance, and rhythm transform simple character interactions into discomfiting shards of cinematic poetry.
Based on Jonathan Ames' novel, her transcendent You Were Never Really Here follows the disjointed, tormented inner journey of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a former soldier and law enforcement official who now works as a kind of hammer-wielding vigilante-for-hire, finding missing people (usually, it seems, kids). He's also suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress -- he's hounded at every turn by visions of the people he couldn't save along the way. We see flashes of his childhood with an abusive father and feel his impotence at not being able to help his mother. We glimpse footage of a girl killed in Iraq and a shipping container full of dead migrants, and we understand that somewhere along the way, Joe wasn't there for them as well. As depicted by Ramsay's frenetic, staccato editing style, Joe does not think in linear fashion. His mind is a tangle of memories and flash-forwards and what-ifs, all rendered in short, sharp, shock cuts.
Ramsay shoots the film's action often by avoiding it altogether -- showing Joe just rounding a corner or leaving a room, a wake of carnage behind him -- so that he seems to become the sum total of the havoc he's wreaked, both to others and to himself.