Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Movie Review: You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here ***** / *****
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay.
Written by: Lynne Ramsay based on the book by Jonathan Ames.
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix (Joe), Ekaterina Samsonov (Nina Votto), Alex Manette (Senator Albert Votto), John Doman (John McCleary), Judith Roberts (Joe's Mother), Alessandro Nivola (Governor Williams), Frank Pando (Angel), Dante Pereira-Olson (Young Joe), Vinicius Damasceno (Moises).
As a director, Lynne Ramsay seems to like to tell complex stories that she basically strips to the bone, placing us inside her characters heads, without giving us all the information we require to piece everything together. There is Movern Callar, about a woman (Samantha Morton) who wakes up to find her boyfriend dead of a suicide. Instead of doing what he asked, she hides the body, takes his money – and his unfinished novel – and goes on some kind of hedonistic journey to Spain. In her next film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, she is in the mind of a mother (Tilda Swinton) whose son commits a high school massacre, who never realizes the connection that she shares with her son – which may well explain why she hates him so, and why does what he does. Now, in You Were Never Really Here, that mind is Joe’s (Joaquin Phoenix), a military veteran who now works for a detective as the muscle – his specialty is saving young girls from trafficking and prostitution. His mind if fractured – he is basically a throbbing open wound. All three movies are complex to say the least – and I cannot help but wonder if there is more material that Ramsay shot for all three, that would have, and could have, made them more traditionally narrative films. She’s not interested in that though – as much as she’s interested in these people, whose mind she places us inside, even as they remain unknowable.
You Were Never Really Here opens with the aftermath of some kind of violent event – Joe cleaning up, we see tools, and blood – a cheap necklace with a girl’s name on it. He “escapes” from the hotel he’s in, drives to the airport to make a phone call. “It’s done” he says to an answering machine, then hangs up. He lives in Brooklyn, with his aging mother, who he is kind to, and really does love. But his life is one of pain – we see the scares all over his body, his flashbacks to an abusive childhood, and the method he uses to cope with it being the same as it was then – nearly suffocating himself. He also flashes back to his time in the military – glimpses of random violence he saw there. These flashbacks may well be why he specializes in what he does.
Most of the movie is made up of one job – he is to find the daughter of a wealthy, powerful state Senator. He has an address, and he really doesn’t have to do much to find her. His preferred weapon in a hammer – and he will use it without mercy. But this job isn’t as simple as the others – there is a higher level conspiracy going on here – one that leads further up than Joe realizes.
Like last year’s Good Time, You Were Never Really Here is in many ways a throwback to the cinema of the 1970s. Obvious references here would be Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver or Paul Schrader’s Hardcore – both films, in their way, are takes on John Ford’s The Searchers and are about men trying to save young women who do not want to be saved. The last act of You Were Never Really Here complicates that even more though – with implications I’m still working out.
As with all of Ramsay’s film, this is a technical marvel – really, she know belongs in the same category as Scorsese, Fincher, Paul Thomas Anderson, etc. The sound design, highlighted by Jonny Greenwood’s pulsating score, pummels you from beginning to end – putting us inside right alongside Joe and his brain. Phoenix is brilliant here – if Day-Lewis really is retired, is he our greatest working actor now? Films like The Master, Inherent Vice and this suggest he is – and what a different trio of masterful performances this is. He has never used his eyes better than he does here – and that’s saying something.
Ramsay has become one of the best directors working today – and it’s a shame that we’re nearly 20 years into her career, and only have four features from her. She takes her time between movies – the false start of Jane Got Her Gun (and the sexist drivel that resulted when she left the film) didn’t help. She is one of the most distinctive filmmakers around – and You Were Never Really Here is a masterpiece.

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