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You Were Never Really Here

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.

This entry was posted on Monday, April 23rd, 2018 at 11:35 am and is filed under Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “You Were Never Really Here”

  1. You’re not alone in loving this one, Vern, but it begins to look like a schtick for Ramsay: take a horror/action subgenre, add a serious actor and play with the narrative structure. I’d’ve been interested to see how JANE GOT A GUN turned out, but it bothers me that she’s dressing these things up for people who “don’t usually like this sort of thing”.

    Re. Arthouse Badass, I’d be interested to see what you make of the Cannes Palme d’Or-winning DHEEPAN, which has a fabulous exploitation set up – former Tamil Tiger fighter comes to France as a refugee and gets a job as a janitor in a housing project ruled by a drugs gang and has to go badass to rescue his found family – only to have it ruined by direction that thinks action is beneath it. There’s even an interview with the director on the making-of documentary where he admits that he hates it when he has to deal with stunt men. No kidding!

  2. The title makes it sound like a sequel to “I’m Still Here”.

  3. I was describing this film to a friend today, and when I told her the title, her first response was, “Is that a sequel to I’m Still Here?”

    This really worked for me, but I can see how some might see it as dismissive of its genre instead of a unique take on the genre. The scenes between Phoenix and his mom were funny and humanizing. I also really loved the part where Phoenix sings some cheesy 70s song along with a dying mercenary who had just moments before shot.

    Also, are you really out of the Seagal game, Vern? I kind of feel like there’s more to say about his weird decent into authoritarianism. I mean, is his choice to become the willing voice of a despot reflected in his films of late? (The last one I watched was Force of Execution from 2013). At the same time, everything that’s come out about Seagal has been kind of depressing, so I can understand why you might want to put that work behind you for now.

  4. Yeah, the title with this thing is unfortunate. Unconsciously I assumed it *was* a sequel to I’m Still Here until I saw the preview. Very stoked to see it, though, now that I know what it is and is not. We Need To Talk About Kevin earned Ramsey the coveted “If she made it, I’ll see it” status for me as a viewer.

  5. Borg9 – I saw DHEEPAN and I thought it was pretty good but didn’t have much to write about it. Yeah, I don’t remember it being action packed.

    RBatty – I just mean I’m retired from defending Seagal. I had intended to do a marathon of all the ones I hadn’t reviewed yet and then the rape allegations came out and I don’t want to do that anymore. But I definitely need to finish reading that book and write about it and/or the article I was trying to do about the dark territory he’s in now.

    I was gonna mention, I don’t know what the title means. It’s taken from the book, though.

  6. Oh, good. I’m looking forward to that article whenever you decide to let it see the light of day.

  7. I really liked this one. I also didn’t get ‘FBI’ until I looked at Wikipedia after the fact, but I thought he might have been a cop as well as a soldier – there was that one very brief flashback of him opening up a container full of trafficked women, I think.

    The only thing the title made me think of was in relation to the girl, as in maybe her only (or most likely) path to getting past this experience is denial – coming to believe that she was never really there. And then maybe it would also relate to his situation somehow too. I almost expected him to say it to her during a rescue, but it’s not a saying things kind of film. That seems very direct of me though, so I’m probably wrong.

    No real SPOILERS, but I loved the ending. I think you could be cynical and say it wanted to have its cake and eat it too, but I thought it was great.

  8. This one runs in German theatres as A BEAUTIFUL DAY.

  9. Oh, that’s interesting. If you’ve seen it you know what it means.

  10. I haven’t, but it’s good to know that this title actually makes sense and wasn’t picked because someone thought A BEAUTIFUL DAY is an easier English title for German audiences than YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE.

  11. Dreadguacamole

    May 13th, 2018 at 6:55 am

    Just watched this tonight. Loved it once I got over the fact that it wasn’t going to be Lynne Ramsay’s Drive (thanks, misleading trailer!).

    Like Drive, it didn’t feel dismissive of the genre it’s operating within, but yeah, unlike Drive it’s got no real interest in the action or even suspense side of things. I really liked how your’re forced to put the pieces together, and how everything kind of makes sense (I did get that he was FBI, or at least SWAT, mostly because of the way he’s dressed in that flashback with the human trafficking crate). And man was that Middle East flashback horrifying. Regarding how they targeted a senator’s daughter…




    I think the movie does a good job signposting that the whole thing had been going on for a while before Joe is roped in. The mother, and then the father committing suicide, someone saying she had always been the governor’s favorite… Think the idea is that Mr Senator had been lending her out for at least a couple of years to further his political career – until he either had a crisis of conscience, or the governor decided to take her as her own. Ugh.

  12. I have read the novella like 12 times so I was really looking forward to this one. The movie captured a lot of what interested me. The ending of the movie sort of spirals away from the book because the book ends at like the end of Act 4, with all this momentum that crashes into THE END. So I had mixed feelings about this having a more ending-ish ending but no hard feelings. (Vern I don’t know if you ever got around to reading the Jack Reacher novels, this character reminds me of JR in the books in ways the Tom Cruise movies don’t bother with. Like the idea of this smart, quiet loner who’s always up for headbutting a bad guy. I don’t care if TC is way smaller than JR in the books, I just miss how the books care a lot about JR’s mental processes, and portray a JR who is disinterested in being charming or a showoff, which of course is the whole point of putting TC in an action movie in my opinion.)

  13. I enjoyed this for its emotional impact, great visual storytelling, and rich, touching performances from Joaquin and the girl he’s trying to rescue. A great character. Would like to see more of the character, though it’s not the kind of movie there’ll be a sequel to. Well worth a trip to ye old Redbox.

  14. I’m finally watching this now. I have a little Joaquin Phoenix double feature, I have watched The Sisters Brothers, which was good, and now I’m finally watching this.

    The title of the film is explained in the imdb trivia, and is from the book:
    he title of the movie is explained in the source material, in which Joe employs his ex-FBI and military skills to leave no trace. In the Ames novel, Joe uses fake identities, wears surgical gloves, and hides his face from cameras so it would be as if he was never really there.

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