Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is brimming over with motion picture artistry—cinematography, editing, sound design, natural (up-close) acting—those mainstays of filmmaking that, when done right, coalesce into the kind of ineffable atmospherics that convey the very tissue of consciousness. It’s a magical alchemy unique to cinema. 

There’s nary a conventional plot-beat to be found throughout the film’s challenging but enticing 90-minute running time. The opening impressionistic shots feel like waking up, after a very long night, alone in an unfamiliar, dimly lit room. Disorienting close-ups, a disembodied female voice counting backwards, off-kilter electronic guitar riffs floating over unidentifiable percussive instruments—all converge and conspire to expose preverbal experience. Enter Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a man of few words. We learn about him slowly, through a jumble of observations, jump cuts, jolting, ambiguous flashbacks and flash-forwards. Some are real, or not; some distorted through time. We’re often uncertain.

After completing what appears to be a professional hit, Joe returns to the home he shares with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). Coincidentally, Mom is tuned-in to Hitchcock’s Psycho on TV. When she informs her son of her viewing choice, Joe mimics Bernard Hermann’s screeching violins while pantomiming Tony Perkins from the infamous shower scene. From wrapping up a contract murder to joshing and bickering with family, his role change flows naturally.

But make no mistake: Joe is a scary dude with a propensity for extreme violence that’s never far from the surface. When he leaves home and heads out onto the streets of New York, the weekday traffic noise moves forward into the sound mix, amped-up slowly to the brink of distortion, like the quiet roar of simmering chaos. The urban soundscape acts as a reminder: we’re nowhere near Kansas anymore.

Joe’s reputation has seeped upwards, from the dark recesses of underground business exchanges into to the hallowed halls of Congress, where Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) is desperate to find his daughter, Nina. Played by 15 year-old Ekaterina Samsonov, Nina has been acting out since her mother’s suicide. She’s run away from home, again, but this time it’s different. A text tracing her to a house run by a child prostitution ring suggests she’s been kidnapped. Votto wants her back, but he also wants to avoid the authorities because he’s running for governor—and because he wants to inflict his own brand of justice: swift, extralegal, and brutal.

Based on a short story by Jonathan Ames, the barebones plot summary of You Were Never Really Here sounds like something Robert De Niro’s Taxi Driver character would be watching after hours in a dilapidated Times Square theater on 42nd Street, circa 1976. Ramsay, however, has done so much more here, taking neo-grindhouse to rarefied heights seldom achieved by Quentin Tarantino. Credit for creating a truly original vision goes to cinematographer Tom Townend, film editor Joe Bini, composer Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead multi-instrumentalist), and sound designer Paul Davies—under the direction of Ramsay, who also wrote the screenplay.

This is only the director’s fourth film since her debut with Ratcatcher (1999), which screened at Cannes in the “Un Certain Regard” competition. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more of her now.

You Were Never Really Here is now playing at Salem Cinema.