Monday, August 24, 2020

You Were Never Really Here (2017)

Director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay's movies tend to be intense affairs, even as they come spaced years apart (Morvern Callar from 2002, We Need to Talk About Kevin from 2011). In terms of the intensity, much the same can be said about Joaquin Phoenix, who is plainly seeking challenges: Joker, The Master, I'm Still Here (a controversial mockumentary about Phoenix's supposed turn to hip-hop whose title may or may not have anything to do with this one), and even reaching way back to Walk the Line and Clay Pigeons. Phoenix often does a convincing dance with baffled rage. Between Ramsay and Phoenix, there's a certain amount of promise going into You Were Never Really Here even before you get to the premise. Phoenix plays Joe, a paranoid loner and righteous freelance security expert who lives with his mother and specializes in rescuing girls from underground sex trafficking rings and other problems. He works outside of the law and he's known for being competent, efficient, and brutal. In 2017, Jeffrey Epstein was not quite the true-crime media lodestar he has become since last year in his well-deserved disgrace and problematic death (with the story continuing this summer as his sidekick and Dump's fond wish Ghislaine Maxwell has been arrested and is now more or less officially on a national death watch). In that way maybe you can even argue tor the prescience of You Were Never Really Here. I have to say there is a lot of Martin Scorsese all over it. Joe is plainly a version of Travis Bickle. He has semi-suicidal impulses based on childhood trauma, information about which comes to us in fragments. When he wraps his head in plastic for as long as can stand the troubled breathing it reminded me of Harvey Keitel's Charlie in Mean Streets, idly holding his hands over open flames as long as he could, imagining the afterlife. The whole situation of rescuing a young girl from the life, using all violence necessary, is straight out of Taxi Driver. It even makes eerie, excellent, but Scorsese-like use of the song "Angel Baby" by Rosie & the Originals, which was also used in Scorsese's After Hours, Dennis Hopper's Colors, and Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (and a handful of others too, it's popular!). Ramsay's picture also reminded me a little of Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive from several years back and also of Claire Denis's White Material. Tough stuff. You Were Never Really Here may not be as original as Ramsay's others (notably Kevin) but it is harrowing good stuff, a rocking thriller ride made out of a fierce combination of editing, performance, and dark vision. It goes over the top at will—two exhausted hitmen lying on a kitchen floor, one dying, mumble-sing together the chorus of Charlene's treacly '70s hit, "I've Never Been to Me," which happens to be playing nearby. I mean, come on! Yet somehow this picture can even make that work. Worth tracking down if you missed it like me.


  1. Doesn't a character in The Leftovers wrap his head in plastic w/ suicidal ideas? Must say I'm not entirely sold on this one but thanks for the warning. Only now you have me curious ab Phoenix's turn to hip-hop. Which I value as a small break from the national death watch.

  2. That rings a bell about The Leftovers! I never did see the hip-hop mockumentary just noted lots of strong reactions over it. Some people apparently felt played somehow.