You Were Never Really Here
Art house action flick and its main character both feel bad
You Were Never Really Here (2018)
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov
Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay has become an indie film darling, largely for being so damn stingy with her talent. With You Were Never Really Here, Ramsay offers up just her fourth feature in 20 years (following Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need to Talk About Kevin). It’s a technique that worked gangbusters for Terrence Malik, who managed 4 films in 22 years, all of them legendary (1973’s Badlands, 1978’s Days of Heaven, 1998’s The Thin Red Line and 2005’s The New World). That rep came crashing down, however, when the reclusive Malik suddenly got a prolific urge and cranked out five films in rapid succession. Each one of those (starting with 2011’s The Tree of Life and ending with 2017’s Song to Song) was soundly dismissed as self-indulgent noodling. While you can’t exactly say 2018’s You Were Never Really Here comes hot on the heels of 2011’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, it’s hard to escape the creeping feeling that Ramsay’s oeuvre isn’t exactly benefitting from the added entries.
We Need To Talk About Kevin found Ramsay dumping her bracing homegrown miserablism for a journey into Hollywood genre experimentalism. We Need to Talk About Kevin dabbled in the “evil kid” category populated by everything from 1956’s The Bad Seed to 2009’s Orphan. Ramsay’s intentional obfuscation and film-school assiduousness, however, turned a simple psychological shocker into an arty, esoteric head scratcher. Not that the film lacked defenders. (Star Tilda Swinton hauled in a lot of Best Actress nominations that year, and the Cannes Film Festival nominated the movie for its prestigious Palme d’Or.) But when I find myself agreeing with Rex Reed (“This is the most unwatchable horror movie masquerading as social comment I have seen this year”), something is wrong with the universe.
You Were Never Really Here finds Ramsay ditching the painful kitchen sink realism of her first couple outings for another trip to genre town. The film is based on the pulpy novella of the same name by snarky neurotic Jonathan Ames (“Bored to Death”). Instead of domestic horror films about paranoid mothers and malignant offspring, Ramsay now finds herself distracted by cathartically violent shoot-’em-up stories of emotionally wounded assassins and their doomed betrayers/targets. (See for reference: Le Samouraï, The Professional, The Killer, The Replacement Killers, Grosse Pointe Blank, Ninja Assassin, Hitman, Collateral, Proud Mary.) It must be stated that there’s nothing wrong with trying to reinvent tired genres. (Check out, for example, the pitch-perfect, homage/spoof of this whole gun fu grouping in John Wick). But—as with We Need to Talk About Kevin before it—Ramsay evinces little history with, understanding of or interest in the very subgenre she’s reconstructing.
Joaquin Phoenix (more on him later) is front and center as Joe, a combat veteran and former FBI agent suffering from crippling PTSD. Unable to work in polite society, he hires himself out as a hitman-cum-fixer with a special emphasis on abducted women and sex trafficking. (He takes care of his elderly mother too, so you know he’s really a good guy.) Joe is hired (through his handler) by a New York state senator to discreetly find and rescue the man’s missing daughter, Nina. Senator Vitto (Alex Manette) drops some none-too-subtle hints that he’s just fine with Joe getting violent on the men who took his little girl. Joe, no stranger to bloodshed, is more than happy to comply. (Cue the duct tape and ball-peen hammers.)
Joe stakes out a high-class New York brothel for wealthy freaks and soon goes all Taxi Driver on the patrons and operators before pulling underaged Nina (Ekaterina Somsonov) out of there. As expected, everything goes horribly wrong after that, with Joe and Nina hunted down by corrupt cops, murderous federal agents and, of course, your standard-issue, string-pulling evil politician.
Phoenix, in full “method” mode and homeless psycho beard, mumbles, rants and power-sulks his way though the role of Joe. At this point in his career, you know what you’re getting into with Phoenix. He won best actor at last year’s Cannes Film Festival thanks to this performance. Your milage may vary, however. Ramsay chooses to weigh down the plot with a lot of flashbacks to Joe’s abusive childhood—which gives some small motivation for his need to help kids and his suicidal state of mind. Unfortunately, the spotty flashbacks are never explained or contextualized, contributing to an overall choppiness in the film’s narrative flow.
Clearly, Ramsay wanted to prove she can make as nasty and violent a revenge drama as her male counterparts. What she fails to provide is an overall logic to the bloody proceedings. Chan-Wook Park’s 2003 masterpiece Oldboy features just as much hammer-based violence and a lot more crazy plot twists—but it holds together in its own loopy world. Ramsay’s mix of impressionistic images, wall-to-wall blood, loaded symbolism, tough-guy (non-)dialogue and feminist outrage don’t exactly gel. There are occasional moments when Ramsay’s meticulous eye evokes the scuzz romance of Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa. There are fewer still when the mordant writing of Mr. Ames pokes through (as when Joe and an assassin sent to do him in lie exhausted on a kitchen floor preposterously keening along to Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been to Me”). If you’re in the mood for a blood-soaked action flick crossed with a feel-bad art house drama—well then, You Were Never Really Here is pretty much your only opportunity.