Spotlight: Lynne Ramsay

By Cameron Lee

Film is comprised of two elements; image and sound. For generations, filmmakers from all walks of life have utilized these two elements to create tapestries for audiences to get immersed in. But only a select few directors in film history have utilized these elements in tandem. There was Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and now there’s Lynne Ramsay. In her 20 year career, she has made just 4 features but with every subsequent feature, she has pushed the medium’s boundaries and created new ways to approach a narrative on film. But most importantly she has become one of the defining filmmakers of the 21st century. One who has a knack for visceral storytelling, trauma stricken characters and unique sound work has put her into a class of her own.

Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland it shouldn’t come as much of surprise that her first feature “Ratcatcher” (1999) would be set in Glasgow. A brutal coming of age story that established everything that would become her signature approach to filmmaking. Soft on story and dialogue yet brimming with atmosphere, imagery, and sound. Take it this way; you know it’s going to be a special film when it starts with a slow-motion shot on a boy playing in curtains, then suddenly his mother snaps us out of the shot with a slap to the face. Then the boy goes outside to play in a canal with his friend and soon after drowns, now his friend is our protagonist and must live with the guilt. Quite a way to grab an audience’s attention, Ramsay is a master at starting films on a shocking note. Most notably in “Morvern Callar” (2002) which opens on a woman discovering her boyfriend’s corpse on Christmas morning.

“We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011) might as well be classified as a horror film. The use of editing and sounds that normally wouldn’t be considered spine chilling are used to perfection in this upsetting film that makes “Don’t Look Now” (1973) look like a joke. The color palette used is exactly like the targets that Kevin practices his bow on. Which just makes everything more horrifying. The film is like being trapped in a box and only having small air holes to breathe through. It’s easy to want to look away over the course of the film; it’s only natural based on the disturbing material. Even when showing the massacre Ramsay does an artistic interpretation of the event with plenty of cuts and a wall of sound. Only focusing on Kevin’s face and body shooting arrows like he’s performing on a stage.

Lynne Ramsay and Jasper Newell in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

“You Were Never Really Here” (2017) subverts the thriller genre every chance it gets to create a reflection of the nature of violence and its consequences. If every action director would look at this film and apply all the lessons and techniques we would all be better for it in the sea of senseless violence portrayed in the media. Ramsay plays with expectations and doesn’t give an audience want it wants. She shoots action scenes from surveillance cameras, cuts away right before any on-screen violence is shown.

Yet the impact of the violence still remains thanks to amazing sound design and editing. By the end of the film, Joe has lost everything yet he is comforted by the girl he tried so hard to save only to realize she didn’t need saving. This after a shocking dream he only just woke up from of him blowing his head off in a crowded diner with nobody noticing or caring. It’s a surprising way to end a film that contained so much death and trauma only for it to end on a positive note. A true subversion of the genre in every sense.

Ramsay’s use of music is up there with the likes of the aforementioned Kubrick, Lynch, and the usual crop of directors that often get mentioned when it comes to music like Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. “Morvan Caller” (2002) uses “The Velvet Underground’s” “I’m Sticking With You” when Morvan cuts up her boyfriend’s corpse in her tub, a prime example of the use of soundtrack dissonance. “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (2011) has “Wham’s Last Christmas” playing during the worst office Christmas party ever. And “You Were Never Really Here” (2017); I could talk for the next couple of paragraphs of the brilliant use of music in that film.

“Lynne Ramsay’s work explores how trauma and violence affect the subconscious, if it’s possible to move onward with our lives in the aftermath of such trauma and guilt, and how this cold and cruel world of ours needs just a little bit more empathy to make just a small but positive difference in someone’s life.”

It helps that the score by Johnny Greenwood is quite possibly his best to date which is no easy feat with the likes of “There Will Be Blood” (2007) and “Phantom Thread” (2017) on his resume. The use of strings on tracks like “Tree Synthesisers” and “Nina Through Glass” sends shivers down my spine every time I listen to it, which is often. The variation on “Tree Synthesisers” “Tree Strings” is used for an emotional punch to the gut when Joe buries his mother in the lake. That variation of the theme perfectly illustrates everything about the film, grief, trauma, and redemption. The song will be played at my funeral on a rotating playlist.

song-wise; the use of “Angel Baby” during Joe’s assault on the hideout and mansion is an inspired choice for an “action scene”. But by far the best use of music is the use of Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me”. It’s played on the radio when Joe confronts a dying hitman he had previously just shot in self-defense. Joe notices the hitman softly singing along to the song and lays down next to him. They both sing along softly together; for the briefest of moments, nothing matters. It’s just two broken men laying down having a moment of human connection.

Joaquin Phoenix and Lynne Ramsay in You Were Never Really Here (2017)


Lynne Ramsay’s work explores how trauma and violence affect the subconscious, if it’s possible to move onward with our lives in the aftermath of such trauma and guilt, and how this cold and cruel world of ours needs just a little bit more empathy to make just a small but positive difference in someone’s life. She does all of this abstractly without any need for exposition or even dialogue. Her vivid imagery tells us everything we need to know to understand what’s going on and if that’s not enough her lush and creative soundscapes pull us into the worlds she creates. Worlds that are raw and unsettling yet distinctly real and disturbingly relatable.

In the press junket for “You Were Never Really Here” she stated her desire to possibly do a comedy. One can only imagine what that could look like. But whatever she decides to do next I will be waiting with an unhealthy level of excitement. Her voice in cinema is one of the few worth following every step of the way. Nobody does what Lynne Ramsay does; she’s undoubtedly a treasure for our times.



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