This review contains spoilers.
There are many parallels between Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here and Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976). Each film explores the seedy underworld of its contemporary Manhattan through the fractured mind of a traumatized war veteran. In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, a depressed, laconic cabbie who befriends a teenage prostitute and decides that saving her will be his salvation. In Ramsay’s film, Joaquin Phoenix is Joe, a depressed, laconic hit man who specializes in rescuing underage girls from white-collar sex rings and bonds with one child who reminds him of himself. Both movies contain jaw-dropping sequences in which the hero storms into a brothel to retrieve the girl and obliterates every complicit man in his path.
But You Were Never Really Here amounts to more than a Taxi Driver for our time. Despite the obvious homage, this is a Ramsay film, rooted in the Glaswegian auteur’s feverish, kaleidoscope style. And it speaks to a new cultural anxiety and loneliness that might have driven Travis crazier, and sooner. At least the riders in Travis’s cab talked to him; today, they’d probably stare at their phones, riding in complete silence.
Perhaps better than any filmmaker of her generation, Ramsay (Ratcatcher, Movern Callar) understands and conveys the interior lives of broken people. Each of her films is a psychological character study, more concerned with the protagonist’s violent relationship with him- or herself than with any external violence. Every shot feels essential, and many are startling, but especially those from the protagonist’s perspective. In Ramsay’s previous feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011), the defining shot comes from the perspective of a beleaguered mother as she watches her sociopathic son squeeze the juice from a pulpy white fruit. In You Were Never Really Here, the twin of that shot is a close-up of a green jellybean that Joe squeezes between his thumb and forefinger, observing its journey from cracked to mushed.
Everyone remembers Travis Bickle’s demented voice-over in Taxi Driver, but none of Ramsay’s films contain voice-over narration—she doesn’t need it. This is not to say that Scorsese, an oft-imitated master of the device, spoon-feeds the audience, but Ramsay seems more trusting of her viewer to pick up on visual clues. Joe’s trauma is dramatized through abrupt, elliptical flashbacks that intimate horrific childhood abuse and relate his distressing experiences in the line of duty, first as a soldier and later as an FBI agent. Though relayed only in snatches, Joe’s memories form a tapestry of pain so visceral that any further explanation for his current line of work would have felt superfluous.
Furthermore, the most overt link between You Were Never Really Here and Taxi Driver —a broken man’s kinship with, and absolution through, a young, female prostitute—cuts deeper in Ramsay’s film. Nina, played by Ekatarina Samsonov, is even younger and more traumatized than Iris, the character Jodie Foster plays in Taxi Driver. Joe sees himself in Nina, which makes their relationship sadder but also meatier: for Travis, saving Iris is simply a narcissistic excuse to “wash all the scum off the streets,” but for Joe it’s the chance to save an abused child just as he once wished to be saved. Joe’s weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer—the same kind of tool that his father used on Joe and his mother.
Like Travis and Iris, Joe and Nina share a pivotal scene in a diner, but in the first film it stresses the generation gap between the characters and in the second it suggests the pair will help each other on their convergent roads to recovery. In Taxi Driver, Travis sees Iris slathering jam on her toast, which solidifies his vision of her as a child and himself as her white knight. In You Were Never Really Here, the roles are reversed: Joe realizes that, in many ways, he’s an arrested child, and ultimately Nina helps him see a way out, so that both of them can live on the other side of misery.
Before that moment, Joe imagines an alternate ending to his story. When Nina goes to the restroom, he shoots himself in the head at the table, and a blood-spattered waitress blithely passes by to drop off the check. Such a surreal and grisly tableau would have felt at home in Taxi Driver, perhaps, but here it has a modern edge. We’re more distracted than ever and more willing to disbelieve or ignore the quotidian horrors all around us. But with this film, as with all her others, Ramsay impels us to see. v