J.M. Tyree

ANTI-PSYCHO-LOGICAL: NOTES ON LYNNE RAMSAY’S YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE


“SOME STRAINS OF THIS FEARSOME film, to be honest, feel overworked and arch,” wrote The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane about Lynne Ramsay’s latest picture, You Were Never Really Here, a nightmare fairy tale about Joe, a hitman (Joaquin Phoenix) hired to rescue Nina, a girl (Ekaterina Samsonov), from sex trafficking at the hands of government officials abetted by police officers. “When Joe finds his white-haired mother sitting in front of the TV,” Lane continues in an otherwise largely admiring review, “does it have to be showing Psycho?”[1]

The answer to Lane’s question, of course, is “yes.” The reason is that Ramsay’s film is a ball-peen hammer aimed at the cinematic skull of Alfred Hitchcock in general, and a blow aimed at the cinematic inheritance of Psycho (1960) in particular. The intricate image pattern of Psycho finds its negative image in You Were Never Really Here in a remarkable undoing of its internal fabric. Both films are about disturbed killers who live with their moms, feature hotel killings, and linger carefully on scenes and haunting images involving staircases, ponds, knives, and blondes looking at a world that wants to destroy them from rain-lashed car windows. Yet here the mom is abused rather than abusive, the killer targets predatory men, the knives slit the throats of attackers rather than victims, the pond is a place of dignified burial rather than a swamp of horror where women serially disappear, and the blonde is a trafficked kid who strikes back at her tormentor and then eats a meal drenched in his blood, not a woman who is stripped and then flushed at the change of reels.

The care and deliberation with which Ramsay has reversed or scrambled the classical polarities of misogyny and death in the Hitchcockian cinema is all the more remarkable given that she has met the master of the macabre on his own ground. Her new film achieves a terrifying tension that is as compelling and frightful as Psycho and Vertigo (1958) viewed purely as a chiller. Other contemporary filmmakers have dueled with Hitchcock successfully by invoking camp and melodrama (Almodóvar’s 2006 Volver and 2011 The Skin I Live In) or by turning his films against themselves in experimental bricolage (Douglas Gordon’s 1993 24 Hour Psycho and Johan Grimonprez’s 2009 Double Take). David Fincher’s oeuvre, meanwhile, stands as a series of latter-day “Hitchcoctions” that blend homage with ingenious generic innovation. But in You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay arguably has outdone them all by summoning and then performing a sort of exorcism on Hitchcock’s cinematic demons and ghosts. Her film is parricide wrapped as tribute.

Yet for all of its horror, You Were Never Really Here is written and filmed from a clearly defined aesthetic distance, one not devoid of a sense of a Hitchcockian sense of humor. To be honest, the reference to Psycho is there to be enjoyed with the same grimly fiendish relish that one experiences watching Joe mock-stabbing the air while his mother hogs their shared bathroom, or gliding down the stairs of his trauma-soaked family home in a reversal of the Arbogast scene from Psycho, all of which gallows humor creates a clear path of continuity between Ramsay, Hitchcock, and Freud. The film’s final sequence treats suicide as a humorous topic, limning the precise difference between jokes and humor as Freud wrote about them in his 1928 essay, “Humor.” (“Its fending off of the possibility of suffering places it among the great series of methods which the human mind has constructed in order to evade the compulsion to suffer,” Freud wrote of gallows humor. “Thanks to this connection, humor possesses a dignity which is wholly lacking for instance, in jokes…”[2]) The scene is also box office poison, displaying the same swagger that led Ramsay to abandon the productions of The Lovely Bones (2009) and Jane Got a Gun (2015) when it became clear that her anti-melodramatic vision of these projects would not prevail.

In his rush to judgment along the conventional lines of psychological realism, Lane identifies a strength of the film as a weakness by failing to recognize the deeper cinematic bond that joins Ramsay with Hitchcock. The “overworked and arch” aspect of their work is a shared obsession with rejecting realism as one of cinema’s primary tasks. Lane’s complaint that You Were Never Really Here is “difficult to believe in” is a truth that lies at the heart of the matter in Hitchcock as well. (Is there a storyline more absurd than Vertigo, Sight & Sound magazine’s “Greatest Film of All Time”?[3]) Hitchcock and Ramsay (at least post-Ratcatcher) tend to discard plausible storylines rooted in psychological realism, preferring the realm of the dark unconscious that subjective camerawork and Expressionist-fueled filmmaking are best suited to convey.

The great German critic of Expressionism, Lotte Eisner, surely would have had something to say about how Ramsay and Hitchcock play with Lang’s staircase obsession in his 1931 child-killer film M. These filmmakers extend and deepen her notion of the “haunted screen” as an expression of the uncanny. In the section of her classic book of the same name devoted to “The obsession with corridors and staircases,” Eisner describes how staircases operate in the cinema of Paul Leni to create what he called

a world of unreality... It is not extreme reality that the camera perceives, but the reality of the inner event, which is more profound, effective and moving than what we see through everyday eyes, and I equally believe that the cinema can reproduce this truth, heightened effectively.[4]

 Similarly, in Hitchcock and Ramsay, we see what their characters dream or imagine, as when Joe in You Were Never Really Here snaps a photo of some tourists in NYC and finds his internal lens depicts a girl crying instead of laughing. This moving image—characteristically Hitchcockian in being what the director called “pure cinema,” visual storytelling encased in virtual silence, unmoored from dialogue or literary effects—displays the inner logic of Ramsay’s sensibility as a 21st century exponent of Leni, Murnau, Lang, & Co.

But there’s an important difference worth noting here between Ramsay and her influences in the expressionist and poetic-realist traditions that mix crime and horror. The house of the male gaze, as classically defined by Laura Mulvey for its voyeuristic objectification as a deluded fantasy of control over women’s bodies, undergoes a deliberative demolition in Ramsay’s films. In one of her most-cited passages, Mulvey writes:

Traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium, with a shifting tension between the looks on either side of the screen.[5]

This process is doubly disrupted in Ramsay’s films through the specific manner that women’s bodies are photographed against the grain of exploitation and titillation. This is particularly true in You Were Never Really Here and Morvern Callar (2002), another anti-Psycho storyline—in the case of the latter film, a narrative about a woman who escapes with the cash from her workaday life and is not punished for doing so.

In Morvern Callar, there’s a little parable regarding the male gaze featured when a fisherman on a boat shines his flashlight on a riverbank as a young woman shows him her underwear. Ramsay films it as a defiant act and lights the scene like a horror film or anti-fashion shoot, severing the spectator’s voyeurism from the fisherman character’s objectification. You Were Never Really Here shatters the two levels of Mulvey’s male gaze by showing Joe murdering the men he finds in the “playground” of underage girls where Nina is being held captive. Nina’s status as an “erotic object for the characters within the screen story” is dissociated from the experience of the spectator. Or rather, if you think Nina’s an “erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium,” this film argues, you should have your brains bashed in.

The complaint leveled against Ramsay for the implausibility of her plot, which features the governor of New York as the lead offender in a pedophile ring, fails to recognize that Ramsay is operating in a British and European cinematic lineage, not an American one. She is more clearly nodding towards Scandi noir such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series of films (2009) and the Danish television series The Killing (2007-2012), as well as the British Red Riding film trilogy (2009), Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and BBC television series such as Broadchurch, The Fall, and Happy Valley, all of which take up similar subject matter. (The paranoia of these productions about men in high places is marked and shared, which is not surprising in the UK context of the Jimmy Savile case, Operation Yewtree, and in the US context of the allegations leveled at American politicians past and present.) In generic terms, these narrative parameters were already well-established in a post-2008, post-financial crash cultural landscape whose mood of utter darkness also applies to the American context, such as in the depiction of politicians in the American remake of The Killing (2011-2014).

Taken together, these productions can be viewed as parables for an era in which the rampant abuse of power is made metaphorical by a cycle of new noir, one which collectively argues that those who govern us are not our representatives but our exploiters. Real-life revelations about sociopathic public figures no longer provoke very much surprise, further undermining faith in institutions and systems. But Ramsay’s film does not treat its extrajudicial vigilantism as any sort of “answer,” as opposed to what one finds in the endless spate of superhero films and television shows. The governor in You Were Never Really Here forms a synecdoche of this universal distrust of those in power—in some ways Ramsay’s film transforms midway through into a 1970s-style paranoid thriller like Alan J. Pakula’s post-Watergate conspiracy film The Parallax View (1976). This truth about the return of this fear-fueled zeitgeist transcends the niceties of what film critics prefer to term “believable,” a criterion that generally only denotes adherence to melodramatic Hollywood conventions.

In any event, the film reviewers’ tyranny of pseudo-realist discourse is the wrong lens through which to view these productions. Loosening the stranglehold of pseudo-realism on film criticism appears to be a perennial task, since its received ideas are taken for granted to such an extreme degree that they needn’t be discussed. As Truffaut noted in his classic 1954 polemic, “A Certain Tendency in French Cinema,” the conventions of psychological realism often disguise a middlebrow sensibility that fears radical work. One of Truffaut’s most durable section titles reads: “Psychological Realism, Neither Real Nor Psychological…”[6] You Were Never Really Here is worthy of comparison with the film it sets out to destroy, yet both Hitchcock and Ramsay share the anti-bourgeois aesthetic that Truffaut admired, and which the New Wave filmmakers emulated in their early crime genre pictures. If one of the primary characteristics of the early New Wave sensibility might be said to be its manner of turning high art and lowbrow subject matter against middlebrow niceties, Ramsay has become one of its most powerful contemporary inheritors—and critics.



Footnotes: 

[1] Anthony Lane, “‘You Were Never Really Here’ and ‘A Quiet Place,’” The New Yorker, April 16, 2018.

[2] Sigmund Freud, “Humor” (1928), in The Standard Edition of The Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXI (1927-1931), The Future of an Illusion, Civilization and Its Discontents, and Other Works, 159-166.

[3] Ian Christie, “The 50 Greatest Films of All Time,” Sight & Sound, September 2012 (http://www.bfi.org.uk/news/50-greatest-films-all-time).

[4] Paul Leni, Kinomatograph, No. 911, 1924, quoted in Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, University of California Press, 127

[5] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October 1975, Pages 6-18 (https://doi.org/10.1093/screen/16.3.6).

[6] The essay’s famous opening line: “These notes have no other object than to attempt to define a certain tendency of the French cinema—a tendency called 'psychological realism'—and to sketch its limits.” Francois Truffaut, “A Certain Tendency of The French Cinema,” Cahiers du cinema (6:31, 1954), 15ff.


J.M. TYREE is the coauthor (with Michael McGriff) of Our Secret Life in the Movies, an NPR Best Books selection; and the author of Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London. His writing has appeared in The Believer, Brick, Lapham’s Quarterly, and Sight & Sound. He serves as Nonfiction Editor at New England Review and teaches at VCUarts.


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