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Film Review: You Were Never Really Here

You Were Never Really Here (2018; Directed by Lynne Ramsay)

A distant, dead-eyed, and solitary man who lives with his aged, fragile mother, played by Joaquin Phoenix, becomes embroiled in a cycle of extreme violence that both stems from the psychological scars of a history of trauma and abuse and constitutes a twisted and more than a little unsettling quasi-heroic transcendence of the position of marginal male anonimity that he has every right to expect awaits him. From early trailers, reviews, and plot summaries of Todd Phillips’ forthcoming Joker movie, this is the general narrative and thematic arc of the Phoenix-fronted, Scorsese-aping “provocative” origin-story take on the notorious DC Comics villain. But it basically describes Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, while also not remotely pinpointing what is likely to set a film like Ramsay’s apart from something like Joker.

Phoenix is Joe, a haunted Iraq War vet who now takes high-risk jobs to find and rescue missing (and often sex-trafficked) young girls, with brutal, grisly punishment of their generally older male captors thrown in for good measure. He makes some money doing this through a plausible-deniability network of contacts that includes a convenience store owner (Frank Pando) and a businessman (John Doman), and he supports his mother (Judith Roberts) and has a sweet, slightly sad relationship with her in their New York City home. But he’s troubled and disconnected and not a little depressed, yearning for some sort of connection. It’s a by-the-numbers Joaquin Phoenix role on the surface, the sort of character that received its fullest study in Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and that Phoenix could spend the rest of his career approximating without stretching himself too much or without much complaint from the critics who praise him whenever he takes on such a role. Only, you know, good.

Joe’s problems becomes less psychological and existential and much more viscerally personal when he frees Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of New York State Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), from an exclusive brothel with a powerful and influential clientele. Soon Joe and everyone he is connected to is under threat from merciless forces, and it will take all of his violent ingenuity to escape with his life while also freeing Nina, who becomes a talisman of bruised innocence worth protecting, a symbol of the shred of moral decency inside himself that he fighting to keep alive.

Even this fuller plot description could be from a dumb, hypermasculine, patronizing 1980s action movie. Certainly, You Were Never Really Here vibrates with push-button #MeToo-era themes and suggestions of secretive pedophile networks trafficking young women for rich and powerful men, and Nina is given a live-wire of violent agency all her own. But it isn’t hard to imagine, say, an ’80s-vintage Sylvester Stallone (or more likely a late-2000s-vintage Mel Gibson) featuring in such a movie, albeit with a very different tone and focus. Hell, one need not even reach back into the past or into the imagination for such an example: Liam Neeson’s Taken trilogy is built around a grimly violent man killing bad people who are out to exploit young girls.

But You Were Never Really Here is pure auteur stuff from Lynne Ramsay, a compelling and memorable arthouse take on this potboiler subgenre that rises to the level of minor masterpiece on the back of her vision and control almost entirely. Ramsay stylizes her ultraviolence and thus increases its vividness. But she doesn’t turn it into balletic grace like John Woo or ugly punctuation to verbal provocation like Quentin Tarantino. Ramsay’s gore is pure, still aftermath tableaux: a body slumped in a hallway, a slowly-spreading pool of blood, a straight razor on a table, eyeglasses stained red with a shattered hole through one lens. It’s a vision of violence focused on its terrible, silent consequences rather than on the adrenalized moments of its excited release.

When Joe invades the brothel holding Nina armed with a ball-peen hammer, Ramsay, cinematographer Thomas Townend, and editor Joe Bini erect a chilled distance by crafting the sequence through the grainy voyeurism of black-and-white security cameras. Joe’s blows are never seen fully landing, and we gaze like a peeping security man at the destruction in his wake. Ramsay approaches violence in other ways elsewhere in the film, but in each case she effectively drains it of its vicarious exhilaration. Nor does Phoenix ever allow Joe to creep into knight-in-shining-armour territory, even if Ramsay’s screenplay singles him out as an ultimately righteous crusader figure. He is only good compared to the rampant awfulness around him, but neither Joe nor the movie featuring him harbours any illusions about the awful things he does redeeming or overcoming that rampant awfulness pervading everything. You Were Never Really Here crafts a metaphor for a crumbling society out of the pain and strain of one broken man, and unlike the defining films of its aesthetic touchstone (and Joker‘s as well, for that matter) Martin Scorsese, finds a slim reason to hope for better in the fate of that man.

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