Friday, April 13, 2018

'You Were Never Really Here': It's Hammer Time

And the award for Best Use of Rosie and the Originals in a Film goes to...

You Were Never Really Here seems an odd venture, on its surface. It's an aggressively bleak and violent film by a female director, Lynne Ramsay, based on an aggressively bleak and violent novella by a writer, Jonathan Ames, best known for his comedic writing.

But it's actually not that surprising considering their collective of works. Lynne Ramsay's previous films include the brutal We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the exceedingly grim Ratcatcher, and Jonathan Ames demonstrated an obvious fondness for gritty detective stories with his comedic TV take on the genre, Bored to Death. And if you look close, there's some very, very dark humor to be found in the You Were Never Really Here, amidst Ramsay's unrelenting murk.

Joaquin Phoenix is at his most grizzled in the part of Joe, a middle aged New Yorker who lives with his aged and slightly senile mother (Judith Roberts). We get Joe's history in brief but visceral flashbacks. He's a veteran; a survivor, along with his mother, of domestic abuse at the hands of his hammer-wielding father; and he's been witness to the often horrific outcomes of human trafficking, a trade he fights against as a kind of vigilante-for-hire who has adopted his father's weapon of choice. (The film's marketing attempt to start a trending hashtag with #bringthehammer is a tad tone deaf.)

A senator hires Joe to help find his sixteen-year-old runaway daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a likely victim of sex trafficking, and Joe accepts the job with almost no questions asked. His one mistake.

You can never accuse Joaquin Phoenix of phoning in a role; he always throws his entire body weight at a character, and this time that body weight is bulked up, his battered dad bod on full display in several scenes. With his long grey hair and beard, cracked hands, and visible scars, just looking at him made me wince. And that was before he fights the bad guys.

The story owes much to classic noir and its tales of double crosses and corruption, but ends up straying just a little too far into the ridiculous. Maybe I've been watching too much Law & Order: SVU  lately (correction, there's no maybe about that), but the trafficking story Joe gets sucked into reeks of the kind of morbid and unbelievable exploitation and corruption you might find in a Very Special two-part episode of the series.

You Were Never Really Here almost falls into the camp of movie I detest, where bleakness is there for the sake of bleakness, and the audience is forced to witness horrible things they already know are horrible, resulting in nothing new learned, just agony. Ultimately Ramsay and Phoenix are able save the movie from that fate through the strength of vision and performance.

Ramsay fills the movie with some beautiful imagery that often belies its sad and tragic content. Johnny Greenwood's pulsating score pushes the film's brisk 90 minutes ever forward. A masterfully edited scene using night vision cameras and Rosie and the Originals' Angel Baby as its soundtrack gave me chills. And it all culminates with what I interpreted to be one of the most darkly comic endings ever (I was the only one in the theater who seemed to be laughing) with Phoenix forcing us to question Joe's commitment to never ending misery.

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