In Lynne Ramsay’s Films, Emotional Agony and Aesthetic Ecstasy Meet


In the cinema of Lynne Ramsay, everyday life turns unfamiliar through the shockwaves of horror, grief, and death. Ramsay, with her astute inclination toward expressive visual detail, emphasizes the fallibility of human nature by reckoning with one of its core concerns: mortality. For her, there is no way to escape its looming rot. In her movies, the lead characters, often women, deal with catastrophic events — the death of a loved one, the drowning of a best friend, the aftermath of a school shooting — in their own strange, complicated ways. These people don’t have the answers to life’s greatest challenges, and Ramsay doesn’t expect them to unravel, by her movies’ ends, the profound mysteries of existence. Instead, she focuses on the internal processes required of those trying to move forward in the wake of horror. In her work, the scars from our past continually influence who we are today.

In celebration of Ramsay’s latest, the Joaquin Phoenix–starring You Were Never Really Here, BAMcinématek this week presents “Tough Love,” a career-spanning retrospective that includes her earliest shorts. In those formative pieces, the strongest among them the aptly titled, eleven-minute Small Deaths (1996), she explores themes and images that would haunt her later work time and again. Shot on 35mm by Ramsay and frequent collaborator Alwin H. Küchler, Small Deaths centers on Anne Marie (played separately by Lynne Ramsay Jr., Genna Gillian, and Anne-Marie Kennedy), who throughout the course of the movie — which covers her childhood and young-adult years — experiences three significant events that shape her into the person she becomes. The fragmented narrative structure relies on images, not dialogue, to communicate Anne Marie’s ideological growth; Ramsay keenly locates breathtakingly singular vistas through which we can infer the girl’s dawning, developing consciousness.

In one such instance, Anne Marie witnesses an episode of adolescent violence: a group of boys torturing a defenseless cow. In this moment, Anne Marie is, with brutal force, brought face-to-face with the specter of death — a realization Ramsay underlines with a close-up of the animal’s eye in the beats just preceding its impending demise. Anne Marie’s palpable empathy for the creature is challenged by a crueler idea: her acknowledgment of the lack of power, of the futile influence, we have over the need to destroy that is inherent in some people. Along with Small Deaths, the shorts program also has the rarely screened, nineteen-minute Kill the Day (2000), a vérité-visceral look into the mundane reality of a drug user, James (James Ramsay), caught in a metaphorical (and, later, literal) prison sentence of his own doing. The beauty of these early works lies in the way Ramsay momentarily disrupts her tragic storylines with dropped-in moments of ecstatic beauty. We see this in Kill the Day through a childhood recollection, late in the film, of James tumbling through tall golden fields of grain. Following this vision of perfection, Ramsay cuts right back to the addict’s solitary body, surrounded by darkness in a room buzzing with flies.

Many of the ideas initially posed in Small Deaths return in Ramsay’s first feature, Ratcatcher (1999). In that film, the childhood innocence of James (William Eadie) gets destroyed when his friend Ryan Quinn (Thomas McTaggart) accidentally drowns during a game of roughhousing gone wrong. What follows is a morose, introspective look at the grief of a boy whose credulous notions of immortality are shattered with the realization that we all someday perish. Ironically, the only immortality Ramsay finds is in the image of young Ryan Quinn’s dead body — forever frozen as a child. This sense of death and rot permeates the surroundings of Ratcatcher: There’s garbage everywhere on these Glaswegian streets, along with rats, crud, and disease. Any semblance of cleanliness — like, say, James’s new shoes — is offset by our knowledge that such perfection is only temporary, or, anyway, trivial, in a world of such decay. During moments of respite, James often revisits the scene of Ryan’s death, staring into the abyss that swallowed his friend and contemplating his own existence. It’s an image not dissimilar from that of Toshiro Mifune’s tuberculosis-ridden yakuza staring into the swamp of nuclear fallout in another dread-streaked work: Akira Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel (1948). The abyss is what we don’t want to consider, because one day we’ll too be pulled under.

The lead in Ramsay’s next feature, Morvern Callar (2002), doesn’t consider the abyss either; she does everything in her power to flee from death after discovering her boyfriend’s corpse on a lovely Christmas morning. A grocery-store employee pinned under the wheels of her own economic futility, Morvern (Samantha Morton) is left alone without much in the way of an escape route. In a chance to start over, she takes the manuscript of her late partner and claims it as her own, attempting to brand herself a writer and become something other than the widow of a depressed genius. Throughout this process, Morvern never takes the time to fully reckon with the loss of her lover; instead, she overdoses on life. She takes a trip to Spain, has sex with strange men, gets lost in the desert. All of these things are fine — what wouldn’t be compared with a premature funeral? — but they’re ultimately distractions. In Ramsay’s close-ups on Morton’s face, you can see a woman who’s breaking under the pressure, overloading her life with potent but fleeting experiences. In doing so, she remains mired underneath the weight of her own grief, which is always creeping through the surface. In a brilliant, subtle performance, Morton conveys the deep loss that suicide leaves behind, while also tapping into a total sense of reckless abandon. Ramsay amplifies the performance with an understanding of image and aural effect; the movie at times feels like the unleashing of a torrent of despair that can only be drowned out by the blaring of pop music in cheap headphones. Anything to keep the reaper away.

But what if you’re raising a reaper? That’s the salient conundrum of Ramsay’s Lionel Shriver adaptation, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Where in her previous films Ramsay succeeded in portraying grief with nuance and grace, in Kevin she does away with such gentle notions, hammering the points of the text home with staggering brutality. It’s a decision that compliments the material, in which a mother, Eva (Tilda Swinton), raises a monster (Ezra Miller) who kills many of his classmates with a bow-and-arrow in a school shooting. In Kevin, Ramsay leans full-throttle into her predispositions toward introspective horror; there’s a vivid sense of the traumatic undercurrent of being indirectly responsible for a catastrophic event. The idea of lingering trauma is one few horror movies truly reckon with, but it’s in this film front-and-center. Events of Kevin’s upbringing play over and over again in the tortured mother’s mind. Sounds pierce the veil of her normal everyday life, bringing her back to that event. Images trigger traumatic memories that pull her right back down to hell. Throughout, Eva is trying to chip the dried red paint off her small white house. It’s a simple, even blunt, motif, but it effectively conveys everything this movie and Lynne Ramsay’s filmography constantly asserts: You cannot remove a scar. Once it’s there, it’s there for good.

‘Tough Love: Cinema by Lynne Ramsay’
April 2–5