Monday, September 17, 2018

"You Were Never Really Here": review

The one-sentence summary of "You Were Never Really Here," starring Joaquin Phoenix and pint-sized Ekaterina Samsonov, would go something like this:

A war veteran working as a hammer-wielding hitman battles inner demons and rescues a little girl who rescues him in turn.
That last part isn't obvious until the very end of the movie, and even then, it's not obvious that our protagonist has found salvation and surcease. Then again, there's a moment when Joe (Phoenix) thinks about committing suicide but stops himself when he has a vision of the girl he's trying to save. So perhaps this girl, Nina (Samsonov), does represent Joe's salvation.

Directed by Lynne Ramsay (who also directed "We Need to Talk About Kevin," another movie about fucked-up people), "You Were Never Really Here" is the story of a man tormented by his past, who engages in the violent work of recovering trafficked girls and dealing out injury and death to the traffickers, often at the request of those who engage his services. Joe's weapon of choice tends to be a ball-peen hammer, bought fresh from a local hardware store—the better to stove in bad guys' skulls, I guess. Wracked by nightmarish flashbacks to his time in the military and by horrific memories from his abused childhood, Joe walks the razor's edge between sanity and madness, often unsure what world he's living in. He prefers not to meet with his immediate boss, John McCleary, who gives Joe his assignments. Instead, Joe communicates with McCleary through an intermediary named Angel, but one day, Angel's son catches sight of Joe, which means Angel is now compromised. Joe then takes the unusual step of meeting face-to-face with McCleary, who gives him a new assignment: the rescue of Senator Albert Votto's young daughter Nina. With only an address as a clue, Joe goes hunting for Nina in the house of a sex trafficker; he finds and rescues the girl, but it's apparently a setup: police (or men posing as police) converge on Joe while he's hiding out at a hotel with the girl; a fight ensues, and Nina gets re-kidnapped while Joe ends up shot in the face. Joe manages to kill his assailant, but he's already guessed that whoever is after him has inside knowledge—which is why Joe is normally so circumspect to begin with. This surmise is confirmed when Joe discovers McCleary dead, along with Angel, Angel's son, and Joe's aged mother. I'll let you deduce what happens next, but it's not quite what you think.

"You Were Never Really Here" has all the elements of an action thriller, but it doesn't tread that path. The violence on offer is occasionally graphic and extreme (McCleary's corpse shows signs of torture, for example), but the story's pace is stately, a slow burn like an episode of "True Detective." Whether he's making a kill or plotting Nina's rescue, Joe takes his sweet time, moving bulkily and painfully and laconically, clearly burdened by both his suicidal thoughts and the various injuries he's accumulated over the course of a long, violent career. The movie's ending might strike some as anticlimactic, but it's perfectly consistent with the emotional tenor of the rest of the film.

By the end, I wasn't sure what to think of this story. I had read some critical praise for the movie and for Phoenix in particular; certain talking heads said Phoenix's performance was "heartfelt" and "committed"—but that's par for the course for Phoenix, whom I like a lot as an actor. He brings a hulking physicality to the role of Joe, with bulging, uneven shoulders and a layer of muscle hiding under a loose-skinned veneer of middle-aged pudginess. Joe is good at what he does, but the portrayal of how he does it aims more for undramatic realism than for crisp, kung-fu-movie perfection. Joe limps, staggers, and schleps along; he's not fleet-footed or particularly agile, but if you get on his bad side, he'll instantly punch you in the throat and put you in a joint lock or a chokehold. That said, I had thought I was in for more of a thrill ride than what I actually got. When Joe loses his mother, this is a call to vengeful action, especially now that Joe knows the corruption that killed his mom goes all the way to the top ranks of his state's government. But there's no glorious, Jack Bauer-style killing spree; instead, there's a quiet walk through a large mansion that culminates in a bloody-but-wordless tableau.

Elements of the story didn't make much sense to me, either. In the aforementioned mansion, one would expect there to be a massive security presence, but Joe deals with only two or three staffers at most. Earlier in the movie, Joe apparently gets shot in the face, and he desperately calls this fact in to McCleary, but we never see—aside from one broken tooth—what path the bullet took through Joe's head. How does a bullet enter your mouth, shatter a tooth, and then not exit somewhere? None of that made sense. But perhaps the story wasn't supposed to make logical sense: this is a character study, after all, not your typical hitman-themed actioner.

So I'll give kudos to Lynne Ramsay for cultivating an occasionally smoldering tone and an often-meditative atmosphere, and for giving us a fascinating character in demon-hounded Joe, but because the story contains plot holes, and because it crawls along at a snail's pace (some critics, praising the film, have called this "tension"), I can't praise Ramsay for much else. In the end, I'll give "You Were Never Really Here" a thumbs-sideways. Watch it at your own risk. For all I know, you might enjoy the character-study aspects of the film more than I did. Me, I guess I was expecting something with a bit more oomph. Luckily, the film's running time is only 90 minutes, so it's over fairly quickly, though I can't call it a tightly written story.

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