I’ve always liked Lynn Ramsey. She’s more of an auteur ‘arthouse’ director like David Lynch, Harmony Korine or Nicolas Winding Refn than someone who’s interested in genre or narrative storytelling like Tarantino, Fincher or Nolan. Her films are visual experiences, like dreams, than actual stories with a beginning, middle and end. Often there is no end and sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the characters are awake or dreaming.
At first glance this looks like a revenge-type thriller about a hitman, however, tonally it’s closer in style to the descent into madness we’d seen in Morvern callar (2002), Ramsey’s second film. This contrasts slightly to her third film We need to talk about Kevin (2011), which actually contained a plot about a violent and tragic relationship between a mother and her psychopathic son. The obvious comparisions to YWNRH would be Taxi Driver (1976) and Drive (2011), although some have suggested the Korean cult thriller Old Boy (2003), for their themes exploring the psychology of violence, identity and masculinity, with shades of existentialism.
Personally, I found her last three films far more accessible for their focus on sensory and emotional experiences, but YWNRH, similar to Lynch’s Blue Velvet and Kubrick’s The Shining, contained no particular meaning except as experiments in cinema and visual storytelling. In these films the tortured characters were trapped in a kindof funhouse of sex, violence and insanity, which may or may not real. For example, I’d often thought of the Overlook Hotel as being a site that exists somewhere between reality and Jack’s own disintegrating psyche, at a certain point in the films his wife and child step through the looking glass and into Jack’s psychosis, but perhaps all of this is simply Jack’s dream anyway. This is what we fear most of all, that reality is a construct and so are ‘ourselves’, a fading collection of thoughts and dreams.
On that basis, I found the waking-life nightmare and obsessive vocations of the two homicidal men in Taxi Driver and Drive far more coherent and tangible than the meandering psychotic hitman ‘Joe’ (Joaquin Phoenix) in YWNRH. Joe lacks any identifying personality or backstory and this somewhat explains the clunky title since he’s literally not present as a ‘self’, he’s an incoherent jumble of feelings.
He’s haunted by images of violence, presumably once a soldier and now suffering PTSD, and when he’s not killing people he spends his time staring at mirrors, playing with knives, suffocating himself and caring for his elderly mother. His behaviour doesn’t indicate if he’s insane, lonely or suicidal, since he rarely speaks. Even the two men in Taxi Driver and Drive seemed fixated on connecting with someone or pursuing a romantic relationship despite their emotional detachment. It’s almost impossible to relate to or understand Joe’s emotions and thoughts, which perhaps is what makes Ramsey’s film interesting, but in terms of narrative it feels more like Lynch’s Mulholland Drive or Drive where it’s hard to disern between reality and what’s fantasy.
The most interesting thing for me was discovering that it was adapted from a novel by Jonathan Ames, who’s graphic novel The Alcoholic (2008) about the writer’s early life and addiction, I’d read 10 years ago and had found a moving and funny biography. I can only imagine that Ames’ novel, like James Jones’ The Thin Red Line or Capote’s In Cold Blood, is probably completely different to the film and actually explains alot more about the characters. The films themselves are more elliptical and impressionistic, but unfortunately fail to tell us who these characters are.