The term “visual poetry” gets bandied around more often than is warranted in film lovers’ circles. Beautiful and evocative as they may be, when it comes down to it, most 80-to-150-minute on-screen narratives are just movies and would do fine to be categorized as such. If there were ever a recent director whose work demands a wider definition than that which “film” can offer, though, it’s Lynne Ramsay.
We Need to Talk About Kevin and You Were Never Really Here are modern visual poems in every sense: collections of images, tones, and sparse words that demand your gut feeling more urgently than your conscious understanding. The films have a narrative coherence, sure, but Ramsay doesn’t seem to feel a responsibility to orient or comfort her viewers, and at times forgoes linear context altogether. This is a compliment; like a perfectly concise poem, everything you need to feel your way through her films is right there, on the page, and between the lines.
In both the films she’s made this decade, Ramsay has employed bold visual and editing techniques which serve to circle around the elephant in the room, masterfully conveying its hugeness without ever revealing its clear form. We’re constantly steeped in the psychology and brutality of her characters, but rather than give us a clear look at their most essential, formative experiences—Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix) and Nina’s (Ekaterina Samsonov) physical trauma in You Were Never Really Here, Kevin’s (Ezra Miller) shooting rampage in We Need to Talk About Kevin—she doles out lingering glimpses of raw moments before and after these critical, capital-M Moments. If her films were a rack focus shot—a technique she employs often and well—the substance of Ramsay’s characters would lie in between the foreground and background, in the spot that we know is there but never see with the same crystalline clarity as those around it.
In Ramsay’s hands (she also wrote both movies, with Rory Stewart Kinnear helping to adapt Kevin), this act of narrative obscuring doesn’t feel withholding or cheap, but brilliant and exhilarating. Although we’re never given a full scene of Kevin murdering his classmates, or of Joe being abused, there’s nothing lacking. Short, vignette-like scenes are punctuated with meaningful visuals, editing, sound, and music, all pieced together in a mosaic of character and mood. Surprising and powerful focal points arise, as when Joe discovers that his second rescue of Nina is unnecessary and reacts with uncontrollable emotion. Is he upset that his newfound purpose has died? Or that her childhood has? As with poetry, multiple readings are necessary.
Ramsay uses color in ways that are both subtly and overtly unsettling, often utilizing them as repetitive metaphoric stand-ins for the moments she leaves unseen. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, splashes of deep red—blood red—punctuate almost every scene. Some reds are clear stand-ins for blood, like when Tilda Swinton’s Eva attempts to wash the paint off her scarlet-stained hands or when Kevin slathers extra jam onto his sandwich, one of many moments where he seems to gain satisfaction from others’ sensory discomfort. Other reds haunt the edges of frames: a tea kettle, a stuffed toy, a squirt of ketchup, the blinking red display of a recently-reset clock.
The film’s first scene is the closest Ramsay comes to showing the immediate carnage of Kevin’s mass shooting head-on, and it’s communicated through something else entirely. Eva is caught in a roil of bodies, a chaotic mass covered in slippery redness. In the background, it’s impossible to tell if the audible yelling is joyous or fearful and yet, this sequence isn’t a death scene but a tomato-stomping festival. When we finally see blood, it’s in an essential moment played out—not unlike a final, twisting line of poetry—as an afterward: the bodies of Eva’s husband and daughter, punctured with arrows, are made all the more grotesque by the unreality with which we’ve come to see blood over the past two hours.
Ramsay uses blue—mostly navy, though some lighter shades are thrown in as well—to the same effect in You Were Never Really Here. Though it isn’t as obvious as her affinity for blood red, the director’s latest is filled with blue front doors, blue sweatshirts, blue eyes, blue pools and lakes and nightgowns and graffiti and purposely visible lens flares. Blue, like a bruise on pale skin. Blue, like a body with no oxygen flowing. Blue, like the blood of the outrageously wealthy. Color may not be Ramsay’s primary method of subtext this time around, but it’s a powerful communicator nonetheless. The director chooses images like neatly ordered words, one at a time, culminating in a series of near-flawless visual phrases.
You Were Never Really Here plays with color and editing, but the film’s poetry lies mostly in its sound design. Phoenix’s hitman is obviously dealing with PTSD and uses self-asphyxiation as a calm-down method. To better understand his need for sensory-deprivation, Ramsay, a talented sound department, and soundtrack composer Jonny Greenwood layer together brief aural nightmares, moments where multiple sounds and sometimes music overlap and crescendo in all sorts of unnerving ways. The film’s score often includes jarring sounds that seem non-musical, evoking images like a slamming door, clanging metal, and off-tempo clapping. At one point, white noise turns to disembodied verbal abuse, which cuts to horns honking, which fades to an elevator’s electronic buzz, which finally quiets as Joe discovers a mutilated body. These orchestras of sound are efficiently disconcerting, letting us inside Joe’s damaged mind more effectively than the image of a father hitting his son ever would.
When I think of broken, tough Joe and his family, I think of Diane Thiel’s poem “Minefield”: “He brought them with him–the minefields/He carried them underneath his good intentions.” As embodied with sharpness and danger by Ezra Miller, Kevin is like Yeats’ darkest: “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” Yet marvelously, thanks to the artistry of Lynne Ramsay, both of these characters—and the unflinching worlds they embody—get poems all their own, feature-length ones we can return to again and again, eager to reread with fresh eyes.