Bookending Harsh Worlds: The Solemn Poetry of Lynne Ramsay

Bookending Harsh Worlds: The Solemn Poetry of Lynne Ramsay

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The memories of trauma sewn into Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature Ratcatcher bring the director full circle on You Were Never Really Here. Julia Teti examines 18 years of careful design and commanding storytelling.

Lynne Ramsay did not walk in quietly: she kicked the door down when returning to theaters with her latest film You Were Never Really Here. The director plants a bookend to her first feature Ratcatcher, a quiet and moving picture about death, poverty, and innocence lost. Ramsay’s reach extends further now, with more eyes than ever on her challenging work. 18 years have passed between Ratcatcher and You Were Never Really Here, but the bridge between the two films offers a poetic examination of the harsh worlds she captures. 

Ramsay is a radical filmmaker. Rarely does someone so consistently capture such cruelty and pain with the intimate beauty found in her filmography. Her work is never loud or wanting for attention, the details within the frame draw audiences in, rising above the trenches she portrays. Instead of feeding every piece of the narrative, Ramsay’s films stand away, making viewers lean in, leering and curious. Bearing a withholding style in mind, Ratcatcher recollects trauma and the loss of innocence through a muted approach. The film opens in the city of Glasgow – it’s a dusty, mouldy part of the city, awash in greys and understated hues of green. It is the dilapidated marsh of Scotland. James and his friend Ryan are play-making in a canal. William Eadie and Thomas McTaggart, both non-actors, play James and Ryan with truthful ease. In a deadly mishap, Ryan accidentally drowns in the canal, leaving James in the wake of death.

Tumbling and careening as a young boy would, the direction forsakes forcing the swelled emotions of tragedy. Instead, Ramsay lets the images communicate: no aggrandising music, just a quiet, plaintive repose. Throughout the film, James returns to his friend’s tomb at the canal. He wades into the water, and instead of explaining why he is so fervent to return to a place that could only bring distress, Ramsay leaves the frame to speak for itself. James later wears his friend’s shoes – effectively stepping into death without calling attention to the transition. These are subtle details, but they are so evocative of loss and the associated guilt, that their quiet concentration blends visual pleasure with a melancholy rooted in trauma that is gently, plainly shown.

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With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay does not use the trauma of her main character Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) as the point of entry. Instead, the director rapidly flashes instances of cruel memory, the audience left desiring a clear understanding of the lived experiences of her characters – we’re given puzzle pieces that make up the picture of Ramsay’s film. Triggers are written in without explanation, showing the pain of the characters and how they cope. The film follows Joe as he seeks to find a young girl, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the disappeared daughter of a political elite. It’s a violent gutter these people live in, and the foul actions of others release the stench further. This is the world Joe and Nina must navigate, and how they do so is captured in whispers and fragments. Peeling back the scars, beard, and blood spattered on Joe’s face, you find a husk of a man tortured by his own past.  

Of the pieces the filmmaker allows to be seen, we find Nina and Joe’s coping mechanism with triggered trauma. Ramsay doesn’t explain why, but as two people who have been tormented and violated, their counting becomes a way to breathe back into reality. Their practice of pacifying pain isn’t justified, but through the frequent abstract images, the audience can establish their own interpretation. Instead of concentrating focus on one character, Nina and Joe share the film. Even in Nina’s absence there is a bond between these two victims. Their relationship is rooted in shared pain and abuse inflicted on them in their youth. Joe and Nina need each other to cope and maneuver their present and past. They save each other in recognizing their pain and waking each other from lapsed memories of inhumanity inflicted upon them – holding onto one another for peace and a chance at new life.  

Ramsay combines the solemnity of her worlds and circumstances with a certain poetic release. Both Ratcatcher and You Were Never Really Here end in ambiguous, yet complete ways. Ratcatcher sees James running through a golden field, one he already knows. He smiles blithely at the camera, fully released from the pain he’s repressed for so long. You Were Never Really Here pulls Joe back into his cruel past. He imagines taking his gun and shooting himself in the head in a bustling diner; his life ending while the world still spins. But Nina touches his head, Joe face-down on the diner table, and revives his mind. They’re both free of their past and can start anew. It’s a stunning breath of relief in both films, as the trauma and pain so subtly invoked in the narratives are finally let go. Both conclusions leave the neglected, harsh worlds behind them and lead into a brighter day.

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The current bookends of Ramsay’s career recite the same somber verse that the director has woven into her filmography so far. Staggeringly haunting, both films unravel triggered memories and innocence pulled away from characters in their festering worlds. Ramsay doesn’t pander to her audience. An engagement with her films hinges on the ability to pay attention to those whiplash moments and enduring images, piecing them together to create a full picture revealing eroding lives and worlds.

Our minds keep inching forward as Ramsay’s films move back. Like untangling the sparse words of a haiku, her poetry is layered in meanings. These are vile worlds Ramsay takes us to, ones we shouldn’t want to visit. But we hobble through, drenched in blood, knowing these scars are favours given to us by a commanding storyteller. Ramsay reaches out to hold our trembling hand – offering a comforting presence to the everlasting solemnity.

Julia Teti (@jltet14) is a freelance Film and TV writer. She has contributed work to Film School Rejects, Polygon, The Playlist, Vague Visages and more. 

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