Into the stunning visual world of Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is a potent thriller that further develops the director’s preoccupations with guilt, loss of innocence and memory. We follow the breadcrumb trail back to the start of her career and explore the origins of this year’s most intriguing character study.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Mapping the constellations in Lynne Ramsay’s audiovisual universe is a game you can play all day.

The shot of James’s face enveloped in a curtain at the beginning of Ratcatcher (1999) finds its echo in the opening of We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), where a curtain billows portentously in the night breeze. Glasgow railway tracks project us into the nondescript gloom in her short film Gasman (1998), while rural pathways send us into the back of the Spanish beyond in Morvern Callar (2002). 

Fingers make shapes in salt, in sugar, crush cereal. Characters stare through windows, the objects of their fixation reflected back to us in their eyeballs. Bodies loom, dislocated in time and space. Dislocation – psychological, societal, familial – is a unifying principle that pulses through Ramsay’s work and is reflected time and again through her formal approach.

Morvern Callar (2002)

In ‘Ma and Da’, the first part of short film triptych Small Deaths (1996), nothing much happens at all. A young girl plays alone while her mother cuts a man’s hair in the background. The girl disappears from shot into another room then reappears moments later. We cut in close on a comb making a parting, the mother finishes the job and exchanges some idle words with the man as he readies to leave.

It’s only when wife and daughter ask the man what time he’ll be back that we understand this is the father-husband, not a punter. Oblique and hazy, it’s a sequence of parts that hints at a bigger, sadder whole. The nothing is everything.

Ramsay ratchets up the childhood disillusion a notch in Gasman. She also ups the abstraction, framing the bodies of her characters in truncated mid-shots as they get ready to go out for the evening. For two minutes we’re given images of shoulders and necks, backs of heads, legs and hands. Then finally a face to latch on to. We’re made to wait, to inhabit the folding of images and sounds, to experience the textures.

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Her early shorts are fragmentary, oneiric pieces, photographic in the way they distil atmosphere within a single frame. Portraiture and cinema merge, drawing on Ramsay’s training as a painter, then photographer, then cinematographer. These works are not so much about memory as of memory, like cine-recollections; sensory and detailed but elusive and out of time. As with the process of remembering itself, her associative compositions evoke feelings that float free from the confines of plot.

It’s this ability to make us feel so deeply through the images, to mobilise the senses beyond the boundaries of story and performance, which sets Ramsay apart. In Ratcatcher’s most memorable sequence the young protagonist James leaves the rubbish-strewn tenements of 1970s Glasgow behind and catches an empty bus into the countryside. When the driver sets him down he walks along a pathway and discovers a half-built house where he tentatively explores the shell-rooms. He lies down in a bathtub still covered in its plastic wrap and plays with the taps, half-expecting water to come out. He urinates into an unplumbed toilet disconnected from the wall and we watch the urine pool near his feet. Everything is in limbo here, thresholds crossed and rules suspended. Possibilities stretch outwards and we float with James as if in a dream.

Ratcatcher (1999)

Through the open window frame he sees a field of golden wheat bathed in sunshine, as if it were a painting hanging on the wall. James bundles himself through and, in a sequence of cinematic euphoria, we are catapulted with him through the crops as he frolics and plays. It’s a respite, fleeting and fantastical, and it exists on the sensory plane of experience. It finds a counterpoint in a sequence half-way through Ramsay’s latest feature You Were Never Really Here, when the protagonist leaves the grime of the city behind to commit his mother to a watery grave in a tranquil lake.

This scene is not the only similarity. Fans of Ramsay’s work will recognise her visual trademarks in the opening sequences of this film, when camera angles, editing and sound design conspire to create a sense of dislocation that sets the tone for the rest of the piece. You Were Never Really Here is the story of Joe, a veteran with a traumatic past who tracks down missing girls for a living. He is both damaged and damager, using any means necessary to wreak havoc on the kidnappers who populate his world.

It’s a character ripe for the Ramsay treatment; if her earlier work was interested in the experience of memory and trauma, You Were Never Really Here takes us deeper into the jigsaw of a troubled mind. This is a film about what lies beneath, about the murky depths.

We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011)

As with Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk about Kevin, Ramsay has taken literary source material and shaped it according to her own sensibilities, deploying ellipsis and fragmentation by harnessing the specific properties of the medium. Much like the kaleidoscopic first act of We Need to Talk about Kevin – which itself finds a short-form precursor of sorts in Ramsay’s languid and expressionistic short Kill the Day (1997) – present and past jostle for space as we work with our disturbed protagonist to make sense of the moment. Ambiguities and confusions rear up, memories flare, things unravel.

To dredge up the past Ramsay engages more directly with conventional portrayals of memory on screen through flashback – sometimes direct, sometimes hallucinatory – and elicits an extraordinary, tortured performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Wry nods to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) – a formal game-changer in its own right – signpost an awareness about the demands of genre and an understanding of where the bar is set.

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Backed by a tense, aching score from Jonny Greenwood, and working with We Need to Talk about Kevin editor Joe Bini, she creates a lean, punchy thriller that remains totally hers – a tough slab of genre-auterism. The hallmarks from Ramsay’s back catalogue are ever-present: a stylistic approach of splinters and shards that hints at what exists beyond, at things we do not see in their fullness but which she is able to communicate in the in-between spaces. By the time audiences leave the cinema they will have been on a dark ride, but one underpinned by the humane desire to make meaning from the mess.

It was difficult to anticipate what a genre film from this gifted Scottish auteur might look and feel like. The result is a fascinating next chapter for this director’s interests and styles, and an invigorating subversion of genre expectations. She is currently developing a project set in outer space, influenced by Moby-Dick. Lynne Ramsay and sci-fi cetaceans? I’m already there.

You Were Never Really Here was backed with National Lottery funding via the BFI Film Fund.

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