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A boy who watched his friend die; a woman who dismembers her boyfriend's body so she can go on holiday; the mother of a teenage psychopath, and a hitman with a penchant for auto-asphyxiation walk into a bar. There's no punchline but rather all these people may be in want of a stiff drink. They are also the protagonists that inhabit the films of Lynne Ramsay.
In my humble opinion, not that anybody cares about that, Lynne Ramsay is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. Few filmmakers have made truly great films. Very, very few make only great films; Ramsay is one of those few. She has directed only four feature films in her career since starting in 1999, but each one is spectacular. Women in film is now a hot-button issue so to take a break on all the problems let's instead celebrate a fantastic director whose work too often goes unnoticed. As you may have gathered by the protagonists mentioned earlier, her films aren't easy watches. Her characters are all navigating worlds of dread, that they in some part, have created - landscapes of guilt, remorse and anger. But they are also films with moments of overwhelming beauty and love.
It would be fair to say they're not a barrel of laughs though. Her first feature is Ratcatcher, released in 1999; and is focused on a young boy coming of age in Ramsay's home-town of Glasgow. It opens with a boy named Ryan arguing with his mother and running off to play with his friend, James. As they roughhouse in nearby canal something happens and Ryan drowns as James just looks on. Yes, it's that kind of film. British social realism, the genre of film to watch if you're just feeling too damn happy and need to be depressed for a few days Ratcatcher's debt to this brand of realism is undeniable. However this film also has a sequence of a mouse travelling to space to join other mice frolicking on the moon, so it's not all doom and gloom. Just mostly doom and gloom. However, the more dreary realities of James' life are interspersed with moments of him making new friends, dancing with his mother and sister and just running freely through a wheat field (not dissimilar to Theresa May's naughtiest moment). It's a tender and intimate look at growing up that refuses to make broad statements on the topic. It's a complicated film and a running theme of Ramsay's work is the refusal of an easy out - life is complicated and people even more so; Ramsay's films resist simplicity.
Life is complicated and people even more so; Ramsay's films resist simplicity
Ramsay's next film Morvern Callar came out in 2002. It may be set at Christmas but is a Christmas film in the same way Psycho is the perfect film for Mother's Day. Morvern Callar finds her boyfriend dead, having recently committed suicide. At first, she does nothing and just carries on with her life as normal in an extreme display of procrastination that I empathise with. Then she goes on a girls' trip with her best friend. Samantha Morton excels as the titular Morvern Callar, giving one of her greatest performances as the elusive protagonist. The opening scene of the film raises the question of 'who is this woman and why is she acting like this?' while the rest of the film gives the audience the information to draw their own conclusions. Ramsay does not hold the audience's hand, or tell us who is the baddie and who is the goodie. Is Morvern a cold-hearted monster or a resourceful woman trying to better her own life? Like Ratcatcher, scenes flow from one to another, moments vary from the banal to the surreal, smoothly transitioning from a day working at the supermarket to dismembering her boyfriend's body in the bathtub. They are fragmented memories trying to provide an answer that doesn't exist.Then came the long break.
It wouldn't be until 2011 that Ramsay released her next and most famous film: We Need to Talk about Kevin. But they don't talk about Kevin much, rather most of the character's ignore Kevin's sadistic tendencies that start to drive his mother (Tilda Swinton) to insanity. There was a slight shift in style during these nine years. We Need to Talk about Kevin has more plot than its predecessors and wrestles with darker, more violent subject matter as Ramsay moves further away from realism. The film is fragmented to the extreme, lurching from the past to the future and back again with little warning. Like Tilda Swinton's protagonist, the audience too is trying to understand a world that no longer makes sense; a world in which motherhood is a curse and she is trying to understand what she did to deserve this. Like her previous two efforts it is also looking at how people act when put in extreme situations, especially how people react to violent death and the feelings of guilt that arise. Most of us won't raise psychopathic children, I hope, but questions of how responsible we are for other people's wrongdoings is a question that can haunt many of us. And once again it's a question with no easy answer and a problem with no easy solution. We are all autonomous beings but it can't be denied that lives are inextricably linked and actions we take can have devastating consequences.
On the topic of devastating consequences, You Were Never Really Here is Ramsay's most recent film that arrived in cinemas earlier this year and is now available on DVD for the Netflixphobes among us. It stars Joaquin Phoenix with the Jesus-beard he grew for Mary Magdalene in a most un-Jesusy role, starring as as a hitman tasked with finding a politician's daughter. You Were Never Really Here is low on dialogue but makes up for it in the 'hitting people with hammers' department. Ramsay has always been an incredibly cinematic storyteller with strong visuals using dialogue to build character rather than plot. Critics have been hailing it as the 'modern day Taxi Driver' Scorsese is an alright director, but Ramsay's deft hand allows for a version that emphasises the underlying tragedy in the central character. It contains moments of incredible violence interspersed with moments of domesticity and sentimentalism. While Scorsese of-ten tries to keep his films grounded, Ramsay allows hers to once again veer into surrealism (though these surreal tangents aren't as jarring as the mouse on the moon sequence). Never in a Scorsese film has the hit-man held the hand of a man he's just killed as they both sing along to Char-lene's 'I've Never Been to Me', an utterly shite song that creates such a bizarre but striking image that juxtaposes tenderness and intimacy with violence and death. Being with somebody as they die is an incredibly intimate thing even if the person you're with is the one who kills you. These two figures of the most violent form of masculinity crumble as they find some kind of solace in each other's humanity and badly sing along to an overly sentimental, sanctimonious song.
All her protagonists are trying to understand their reality, a reality that is more often than not grim and dark. The characters are trying to understand themselves as much as the audience is trying to understand them. That's where the real tension lies in Ramsay's films. Not in the bloodshed or anger but in the complexities of people - where horror and beauty can co-exist. Her protagonists are flawed, often incredibly so, but they are also nothing if not complicated. While we watch them go through the extraordinary and the banal in Ramsay's films, they become so innately human, so much that it feels uncomfortable to condemn them as characters. And neither do the films condemn them. Despite the bleakness of many the films it always ends with hope that things can get better. And things would certainly be better if Lynne Ramsay doesn't make us wait nine years for her next film. M