Sunday 11 March 2018

You Were Never Really Here

Hammer & Bickle

You Were Never Really Here
2018 UK/France/USA Directed by Lynne Ramsay
UK cinema release print.

Warning: In order for me to talk about a couple of scenes in the way I want to talk about them, it’s necessary to have spoilers here, including the ending of the movie. Please go see the movie before you read my thoughts on it.

Based on the novella by Jonathan Ames, You Were Never Really Here is Lynne Ramsay’s fourth feature length film. It stars Joaquin Phoenix, an actor I’ve never really appreciated until his star turn here, as the title character Joe. Joe takes on brutal, illegal jobs rescuing children from pedophiles for cash... always carrying a trusty hammer to smash his way through people to reach his goal. So, yeah, pretty much a hit man with a conscience. If you understand my title for this piece, you’ll know I’ll soon be making the much noted comparison of this movie to a rather more famous film of the 1970s and I know, already, people are getting sick of hearing this comparison from other commentators on the film. However, like I said, I will get to this in a minute because, frankly, Ramsay seems to be doing everything she can in the movie to invite this response and... she does a fine job with it too.

Now, I usually stay away from films featuring Phoenix if I can but when I saw the trailer for this I was intrigued and, frankly, when I saw who the director was then I knew that I would have to see this one. Including this movie, I’ve only seen three of Ramsay’s four feature films and her last one, We Really Need To Talk About Kevin, really didn’t do much for me, truth be told. However, anyone who directed the absolutely astonishing movie version of Morvern Callar, which I found much more interesting than the book (the book isn’t bad, mind you, but the characters seem pitched a little differently), is someone who has my trust for life.

As it happens, You Were Never Really Here is a truly great movie. There are times when it becomes an almost hypnagogic experience due to the way the images and the stark musical score by Jonny Greenwood work together, too.

After establishing the main character Joe by way of showing us the end and aftermath of a ‘previous job’ and then showing us his loving relationship with his ageing mother, who he lives with, the film drifts fairly rapidly into the main plot set up... where Joe is asked by a senator to rescue his daughter from a child prostitution ring... which is something which is a vast simplification in terms of the political damage the exposure of such a ring could do, it turns out. We follow his mission to rescue young Nina, played brilliantly by Ekaterina Samsonov and then, as Joe waits to deliver her back into the hands of her father, everything goes wrong for Joe and Nina. Joe barely manages to escape with his life. When he returns to his familiar places, everyone he knows has been tortured and killed in an effort to find him, including his mother. Joes mission now becomes to once more rescue Nina from the clutches of the politically powerful, child slave swapping ring that have created this situation in the first place.

And it’s drawn a lot of comparisons to Taxi Driver and... I really can’t disagree with that slant.

Joe’s similarity, in some ways, to "God’s lonely man" Travis Bickle and Nina’s dead-eyed version of Jodie Foster’s Iris are things I don’t think I imagined as the writer/director seems to be almost pushing these similarities on us. The visual metaphors of the streets of New York where Joe drives his car in an almost direct parody of the shots and lightning of DeNiro’s cab driving scenes in Taxi Driver can’t, I’m sure, be anything but deliberate. The seedy apartment building where Joe first rescues Nina could easily be the same building where Travis Bickle makes his final stand to rescue Iris in Scorcese’s phenomenal classic and the distancing that Scorcese achieves in some of that last shoot out (with voyeuristic, overhead shots etc) are mimicked here but in a completely different way. The film is violent in intent but, actually, not that violent in what it shows... you feel it more with the gut crunching sound design and the juxtaposition of visual information rather than see most of the violence and the way Ramsay chooses to show that first big rescue is on perpetually cycling Close Circuit Television screens as we track Joe’s progress through the pedophile's lair via media within media.

Other parallels with Taxi Driver would include the diner where Joe and Nina drink their milkshakes at the end of the movie and there’s even, during that 'New York by night' drive-by sequence, that shot where the camera focuses on what’s outside the front windscreen before shifting so the rear view mirror comes into sharp focus.

So, yeah, I can’t really blame people for talking about the Scorcese movie in relation to this one. It even, in some ways, seems to have the same plot as Scorcese’s noted influence on his version. That being that of the central story of John Ford’s The Searchers, where Nina takes on the motivation associated with the Natalie Wood role in that film.

One of the other influences which I think some people are maybe missing (or maybe it’s just me seeing what I want to see), is that of the cinema of Sergio Leone. In a lot (not quite all) of Leone’s cinema, we have the characters (and audience) being constantly informed and updated by memory flashbacks to a back story outside the current one and this is what Ramsay does with Joe’s character so that, by the end, we have an understanding and sympathy with the character as his own childhood trauma is made accessible to us. Ramsay is also exceptionally clever here because those little flashes of memory kind of creep up on us almost unannounced in a lot of instances and she does this, I believe, by showing us lots of random details in little flashes in a similar way. For instance, we might see a floor polisher suddenly filling the screen for a few seconds or Joe’s mouth at a water fountain. These little cut aways make the other cutaways to Joe’s turbulent past and his obsession with breath play and constant contemplation and fascination with suicide a more palatable and easy thing to accept in the general flow of information as this gem unfolds.

There are some really great moments here, too, which are real flashes of the Ramsay genius and I think my favourite of these is the moment where Joe buries his mother in a lake and weighs his pockets down with rocks too... in a bid to bury himself with her. As we see Joe and the black plastic bag that holds his mum float down to the bottom of the lake, we hear Joe counting in his head on the soundtrack... counting down to his own death, We are then instantly reminded of Nina’s countdown to something on the soundtrack earlier in the film and when Joe opens his eyes at the realisation that he really has to go rescue her again, we see Nina swimming up from the bottom of the lake in Joe’s mind too, as he liberates himself from the water which seemed to be the answer to his obvious death wish.

Now, the ending of the movie is brilliant but I’ve seen some people saying that it competely changes the perception of everything that happens before it. Now, maybe I’m just exceptionally slow or stupid but... I beg to differ. And this really is a big spoiler here folks so, you know, look away and go off and see the movie instead, if you haven’t already done so...

When Nina goes off to a restroom in the diner, Joe takes a revolver and blows his own brains out on the table. Everybody else around him carries on like normal and the blood spattered waitress even plonks his bill down on the table in the big pool of red fluid forming and we realise that he is just imaging this, as Nina returns and wakes him from his revelry. Now, some people are taking this and the prominence of pills he pops to try and keep his haunting childhood memories at bay as testament that none of the things in the movie actually happened and that it was all in his head. I don’t think so... I think this is a natural progression for the two characters and everything did, indeed, happen as we saw it. And besides... Joe still has that big hole in his cheek where he was shot through the face earlier in the movie. So.. a great ending yes but, game changing? No.

And that’s all I have to say about this one. Like Morvern Callar before it, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here is an absolute classic of modern cinema and the blatant references to Taxi Driver (which only affect the reading if you’ve seen the earlier movie and are frankly not impactful on the story) in no way hinder the movie... they just indicate a confident director’s acknowledgment of cinematic history within the context of her own movie. A true masterpiece and one which I hope sees her getting a lot of recognition and well deserved praise.

Oh... and for the record... Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely brilliant in this.

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