YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is the latest example of what I call “Arthouse Badass” – movies with subject matter and tropes from our beloved crime/action/tough guy movies, but with more interest in formal experimentation and subverting expectations or cliches than in delivering on traditional money shots. It’s based on a novella by Jonathan Ames that sounds like a pretty straightforward action kinda thing, but it’s written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN). Joaquin Phoenix (U TURN) stars as a scary dude who, in the opening scene, has just killed some sex traffickers or somebody and is making an escape. But there will be little emphasis on how badass he is and alot on how damaged and haunted and sad he is.
Like Riggs he regularly contemplates suicide (holding a knife over his mouth, pulling a plastic bag over his head, peering over bridges and onto train tracks). Like Rambo he’s covered in scars and sees flashes of war crimes and other traumas, and at one point breaks down crying about the people he’s killed. Like Leon the professional, Creasy the man on fire, The Equalizer, Logan, Statham in SAFE or Seagal in OUT OF REACH he finds some kind of life’s purpose in protecting a little girl.
But he’s not cool. He’s a husky, baggy-pants-and-pullover-hoodie guy, with a belly and greasy unbrushed hair and a bushy, graying beard, and he mumbles and lays around lazily eating jellybeans, and the last thing he does in the movie is loudly slurp up the dregs of a melted milkshake. He looks more Jack Black than John Wick, more Devin Faraci than Chow Yun Fat, more George R.R. Martin than Lee Marvin, more guitar tech for Ratt than elite operative.
I saw an online conversation of passionate movie lovers praising Phoenix for choosing this body type over being unattainably ripped like most of today’s action heroes. Such a brave choice, they felt. Not saying I disagree, but where were you people during all those years I couldn’t write about a Seagal movie without “Ha ha, yeah, BELLY OF THE BEAST all right. HARD TO KILL, more like hard to stop eating food. OUT FOR JUSTICE, more like out for eating a bunch of food. UNDER SIEGE, more like under the food that he is eating because he is a fat guy who eats food.” I could’ve used some backup back then. But I’m retired now.
Anyway, Joe has no exposition, no witty dialogue, no Just How Badass Is He speech. I understood that he was a Marine because of a photo in his mom (Judith Roberts, SILENT NIGHT DEADLY NIGHT, DEATH SENTENCE)’s house and some cryptic memories of Afghanistan. I couldn’t parse his traumatic childhood flashbacks and didn’t catch that he was (according to Wikipedia) ex-FBI. Now he works in New York as a hired child rescuer/bad people killer and lives with his elderly, confused mom (in a 100% authentic old lady house). She stresses him out and makes him sad but also is the only person who makes him laugh. In the middle of this brutal movie is an unusually down to earth relationship between grown son and aging mother. It increases Joe’s humanity but not in a badass juxtaposition way. It shows that after all he’s been through in combat (and the FBI?) and what he’s up to now he can still go home to mom and seem like an unemployed college age stoner dude who hasn’t moved out yet and sleeps in past noon every day.
Through some naturally unfolding events we see some of how his job works, and his handler (John Doman from The Wire and MERCURY RISING) gives him an assignment to rescue the daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov, WONDERSTRUCK) of a senator (Alex Manette, LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER) who is in the custody of sex traffickers. Obviously this is some fucked up shit you have to face in this movie, not graphic, but very upsetting through implication. You find yourself wondering why these creeps would be so stupid as to choose the daughter of a senator for this – isn’t that almost as dangerous as choosing Liam Neeson’s daughter? And it just paints this world where the powerful are also the most perverse and cruel and corrupt. Of course people end up as fucked up as Joe when this is our society.
And poor kidnapped Nina doesn’t need combat experience to seem potentially as broken as Joe. They make eye contact like two mannequins set up facing each other. He carries her out of there like a CPR dummy. You hope he doesn’t get pulled over with her in the car, somebody might get the wrong idea.
Not saying it’s as good, but it reminds me a little bit of POINT BLANK and THE LIMEY in taking an arty, elliptical approach, seemingly more disdainful of pulp than those, but still managing to work within the genre. It’s an anti-action movie. Most of the violence happens in subliminal flashes, indecipherable closeups, unglamorous security camera feeds, or entirely off screen. When he’s attacked and held at gunpoint by corrupt cops you see their badges more than their faces. Those techniques are effective in showing the ugly brutality of killing – there is no elegance involved, ever. Or as Ramsay put it to The Guardian, “There’s no… ballet to it.”
I don’t think a Haneke-style moral judgment on cool, entertaining action sequences was intended, but if it was then it’s a strike out. She’s not taking away your dessert like, say, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL. She’s still exploiting deranged cruelty and chunky blood for morbid kicks, and I’m afraid she’s providing a much more accessible fantasy for avenging Pizzagate believers than Bruce Willis ever could. They don’t even have to groom themselves to play Joe – just pull up a hood and imagine the cool theme music.
Yeah, there’s a great score by Jonny Greenwood (THERE WILL BE BLOOD) that starts with sleek synths and drum machines – a little DRIVE, a little Tangerine Dream – but as Joe loses mental control it turns into feverish plucking and violin stings that break apart into wailing, grinding chaos. Most of the time there’s no music, though, just atmospheric sounds – traffic, trains, conversations in a diner, chirping bugs – that can at any time build to an ear-splitting cacaphony.
The story is simple, told largely visually. Some of it I didn’t follow and understood only after reading a plot summary, but I like that puzzling quality. Some of it feels very naturalistic, some hallucinatory. Yes, he attacks people with a ball peen hammer, but even if you see those moments they are not the payoff. You’re watching for those little unexpected things you’ve never seen in a movie of this type before, like the apparently unscripted scene where a man he’s shot reaches and holds his hand as he dies. This after they both sing along with some pop song playing tinnily on the radio. I can almost picture Rambo doing that, but he never has. So good for Joe.
If it’s about much more than exploring a character and telling a familiar story in a counterintuitive way then that higher purpose eludes me. And if it sounds terrible to you, it probly is. I can see why some people would hate this one. But not me. I think I kinda love it.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.