You Were Never Really HereReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/12/18 23:47:53
(Worth A Look)
When future generations of film scholars and people killing time in bars before trivia night sit down to compose lists of the most grimly depressing movies ever made, Lynne Ramsey’s “You Were Never Really Here” is sure to have a place of high honor on all of them. This is not a criticism, mind you, as much as it is a simple observation for this is a film that is simply jam-packed with dread, misery and moments of physical and emotional violence that are so overwhelming in their brutality that even those moviegoers with a high threshold for such things may find themselves turning away in a futile effort to escape the horrors up on the screen. That said, it has been made with a great deal of style and skill and contains a effective central performance from Joaquin Phoenix at its bruised center. However, when it comes to supplying some kind of perceptible point to all of the ugliness that it presents, it comes up short—I genuinely cannot quite figure out what the movie is ultimately trying to say and I am not so sure that she knows either. Then again, it could be argued that this is also less a criticism than it is an observation as well.Phoenix plays Joe and while Shelton’s screenplay, an adaptation of the short novel by Jonathan Ames, does not exactly go out of its way to explain out loud what is going on with him, we get enough clues to suggest that he is not all right. Though recurring shards of memories of his abusive childhood and a particularly horrible incident he unwittingly instigate while serving in the military overseas, we soon grasp that he is suffering from PTSD and has no one to reach to or talk to—the only person he seems even vaguely close to is his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) that he still lives with and even that relationship seems to be fraught to a certain degree based on his reaction when he learns that Mom has been watching “Psycho” on television—as well as a barely disguised propensity for violence. Oddly enough, he has managed to build a career for himself that takes full advantage of those quirks—working in conjunction with a private detective, he tracks down young girls who have been taken by sex traffickers and rescues them and dispenses anyone who gets in his way with a couple of whacks in the head with a hammer. As the film opens, we get just a taste of what he is capable of as he calmly washes the blood off of his hammers and meticulously gathers his belongings before leaving his motel after completing a job—when someone tries to jump him in an alley, he beats them down so quickly that he hardly seems to move at all.
For his latest job, Joe’s employer is a New York senator (Alex Manette) whose tween daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a habitual runaway, has been taken by kidnappers and put to work in a clandestine Manhattan brothel catering exclusively to very rich and powerful people with very depraved tastes—the senator wants Joe to bring Nina back and to not worry about being too brutal towards those who took her. At first, it appears to be just another job and we quietly regard Joe as he stops off at a hardware store to pick up the tools he will be employing, stakes out the building where Nina is being kept while looking for a way inside and, finally, going about the job of rescuing and returning his target. Without giving too much away, it turns out that things are not as simple as straightforward as first expected and Joe’s efforts to save Nina lead to places darker and bloodier than even he is used to.
Based on the above description, you might be forgiven for thinking that “You Were Never Really Here” is just another riff on the Liam Neeson hit “Taken” and while the two obviously share a few story points here and there, the execution employed here by Ramsey could not be more different. What she has done here is to take the standard rescue/revenge thriller narrative and strip it to the bone to the point where the entire thing is practically abstract in its execution. Anything that could be considered even remotely extraneous to the action at hand—even such seemingly obligatory elements as an explanation of how Joe became who he is now or details of exactly how the kidnap ring works—have simply been cast aside. This is an approach that is tricky to pull off but when it does work—as it has in the films of such genre iconoclasts as Walter Hill and Michael Mann—the results can be both thrilling and strangely poetic. Ramsey is clearly going for the same effect here but doesn’t quite pull it off—the lack of detail here proves to be more frustrating than interesting since we never really get a fix on what it is that she is trying to say with her parade of ghastly images. Obviously, I could go on at length about how she is trying to illustrate the corroding effects of violence and corruption as they are passed on from generation to generation but even on that basic level, the film rings a bit hollow as it offers up little more than a couple of clunky metaphors here and there. Even a film as nihilistic as “Taxi Driver,” which this one is clearly emulating at times, had some kind of soul and meaning to it amidst all the carnage—that is precisely what gave it such disturbing power. This is more of an arthouse/grindhouse hybrid that would probably not satisfy either of those audiences to any great extent.
Although “You Were Never Really Here” does not work especially well in the abstract, there are so many things about it that are effective that the film still merits consideration. Joaquin Phoenix, for example, has spent a good chunk of his career playing characters who have been emotionally damaged in some form or another but what he does here as Joe. This is a character who starts off on the edge (when we first lay eyes on him, he is making a halfhearted suicide attempt) and stays there for the duration but he approaches the part with the kind of deep empathy that allows the character to come across as a real and essentially pitiable person instead of simply an abstract collection of hyper-violent tics. As for Ramsey, while she has not quite managed to pull the film together into a satisfying whole, she handles a number of the individual elements with a lot of skill and ingenuity. Stylistically, she does an interesting thing by staging most of the violent scenes, of which there are many, in an off-kilter manner that keeps the actual gore to a relative minimum without reducing the brutality at all. (In the most audacious sequence in a film filled with them, we see Joe’s slaughter in the brothel entirely from the perspective of silent security cams that flip from shot to shot as he pounds his way through in search of Nina.) Instead of making the blood flow, she is more interested in putting viewers into Joe’s fractured mindset to suggest the tension that makes up his everyday existence and this works fabulously well, aided in no small part by the trippy and unusually evocative music by Johnny Greenwood, who composed last year best score with “Phantom Thread” and whose work here is just as impressive. Shockingly, even amongst the gloom and doom and misery that suffuses virtually every frame, Ramsey even allows a few moments of mordant dark humor to seep through—in one weirdly brilliant bit, a to-the-death beatdown is punctuated by both participants, both winded and one clearly dying, suddenly doing a half-mumbled sing-a-long to the schlocky pop tune “I’ve Never Been to Me.”Even though I have not been a fan of all of Lynne Ramsey’s past films—I consider her “Morvern Callar” to be an utter extraordinary character study about the grief process but found her adaptation of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” to be overly pretentious horseshit from start to finish—I do consider her to be an innately gifted filmmaker and I always find myself looking forward to her next project with anticipation and maybe a slight streak of dread. “You Were Never Really Here” may not be an entirely satisfactory moviegoing experience in the end but the things that she does well here are done so well that it is easy to overlook the missteps and pretensions. This is not a movie that anyone will come out of feeling better than they did when they came in and it will never rank high on anyone’s list of ideal date movies. However, for all of its ungainly moments of murky storytelling and lack of an essential point, it still has a certain power and style to it that cannot be easily ignored. You won’t have a fun night at the movies if you choose to see “You Were Never Really Here,” to be sure, but you will certainly have a memorable one.
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