The Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has a rapturous way with a camera that has served her beautifully in a small but impressive resume of intense films that skew to the dark side of blighted psyches. In works like Gasman, her moody 1998 short about a little girl who discovers by chance that she has a sister, and Ratcatcher (also 1998), about life on Glasgow's grimy underside, Ramsay has been the best of the handful of women working in noir terrain. Her affinity for bleak British lives in free fall has often gotten her lumped in with British miserabilists like Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. In fact, Ramsay is an ardent stylist for whom beauty, grime, and terror go hand in hand with generous helpings of black comedy.
At her finest, Ramsay is a painterly lyricist of the tortured inner life, but her work took a turn for the merely sensational with We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), adapted from Lionel Shriver's novel about a school killer seen through the eyes of his mother. Her new film, You Were Never Really Here, is at once her boldest and, for my money, her least successful. Adapted from a novella by the American writer Jonathan Ames, the movie stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, an army veteran and former FBI agent specializing in sex-trafficking. Now living with his skeletal, demented and ambivalently adored mother (Judith Roberts), Joe is running to seed. Muscle is turning to fat, and his back and shoulders are pocked with scars, the mark of past traumas from childhood and the military that pop up at exhaustively regular intervals in shards of unexplained memory. With his tiny ponytail and ubiquitous hoodie, Joe cuts a portentously retro figure, as if recently liberated from a multi-pack of shrink-wrapped Hell's Angel figurines.
Joe regards his freelance gig as a rescuer of kidnapped girls less as a job than a calling, a kink of his damaged psyche that has prompted inevitable comparisons with Taxi Driver. When an ambitious Senator (Alex Manette) calls on him to recover his daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) and lay waste to her molesters, Joe goes about his mission with gusto and method. As in all Ramsay's movies, there's wicked humor here that breathes new meaning into the term Hammer Horror: Joe's weapon of choice comes from the hardware store, not the gun shop, and when not dispatching those who would sully the purity of virgins, he takes a break to indulge in jovial sing-alongs with Mom while polishing the silver, or chills out by breathing into plastic bags.
By way of plot, poor Joe's so bent out of mental shape that he fails to see that he's slaughtered his way into a trap. At least I think it's a trap; it's hard to be sure, so mired is the action in toxic-avenger brutality set to stolid repeat. Style overwhelms substance; characters recede into a fog of endless setup accentuated with Johnny Greenwood's meaningfully strident score.
Though always attuned to the plight of powerless women, Ramsay has always been a slyly subversive feminist. Who could forget the sublime moment in Morvern Callar (2002) when a publisher woos Samantha Morton, who has stolen her dead boy friend's manuscript, by extolling the book's "distinctive female voice?" Yet the women of You Were Never Really Here never come to life: Mom is a caricatured horror staple; Nina's a stoned cipher, a mere extension of Joe's savior complex.
As for Joe, if any actor can signal nut-job and lost-soul in one performance, it's Phoenix. He's always terrific, yet You Were Never Really Here keeps us trembling in such constant dread of the brutality to come, it's all but impossible to focus on Ramsay's empathy for Joe's broken state. Does he save himself by his struggles to save Nina? The frustratingly ambiguous ending mirrors and romanticizes, but fails to illuminate Joe's tenuous grip on reality.