Film review: "You Were Never Really Here" Deconstructs the Action movie
Is there any film genre more cathartic, more viscerally thrilling, than the action genre? Probably not, which is why it’s the most popular form of cinema. Watching a man or woman getting even with melee weapons or their bare hands, or avenging a doe eyed innocent, is exciting and easily understood in every language. Action is universal.
After all, the James Bond series is successful because, in a certain mind set, there are vicarious thrills to be had in watching a fit English gentleman murder an endless number of foreigners and sleep with an endless number of exotic women without consequence. And with the best stunts Hollywood money can buy, there’s a good reason those films are compared to rollercoaster rides.
However, director and screenwriter Lynne Ramsay has crafted a personal-as-a-poem anti-action action movie with You Were Never Really Here, an adaptation of the Jonathan Ames novella. The violence isn’t thrilling or cathartic, it’s awful and it’s over quickly. We’re not positioned to be gleeful participants in Joe’s brief bursts of nobly motivated violence (he’s a traumatised vet who makes a living by rescuing girls from sex trafficking rings – as played by Joaquin Phoenix, he’s the kind of wounded loner stereotype you could get on board with. In theory.).
To wit, the scene where Joe, armed only with his ball-peen hammer, storms a brothel to locate the daughter of a senator. A traditional action film would frame this sequence with an elaborately choreographed tracking shot, and the money shots would be fountains of blood gushing from broken faces and bodies. It’d be slick pornography. Ramsay deliberately denies us the ballet of cinematic violence by framing Joe’s brutal, unimaginative kills through the lenses of distant security cameras. We’re forced to watch this gruesome display dispassionately, like cops surveying a crime scene. It's one of the very few action sequences here, and it's a declaration of intent.
And Joe sure isn’t your typical action hero protagonist. He isn’t especially intelligent, doesn’t have a smart-ass retort handy, and his efficiency is believable. His biceps are mean and distinctive enough, but his fleshy body and raggedy clothes suggests a lack of vanity, a stark contrast to John Wick’s impeccable style and sinewy sensuality. Joaquin Phoenix typically disappears into the role, laying out a history of horrific possibilities with only his dulled expressions and a fuzzy, slurred cadence. His head is made of rusty nails and broken glass, and he’s not really all there.
Lynne Ramsay’s filmmaking complements his committed performance flawlessly. Piece-meal PTSD-ridden flashbacks of a traumatic childhood, and adulthood, often rudely interrupt the present. The cranked-up sound effects grant these flashbacks an extra edge of horror. These flashbacks have little do with pushing a plot forward. It’s just that for this guy, past is present, and it becomes agonisingly clear that he’ll never escape the ugly noise in his head as long as he lives. None of this is ever spoken out loud, because Ramsay so skilfully and firmly roots us in this guy’s POV that her efficient, bony script is all that’s needed, no sermonising necessary.
Johnny Greenwood’s score is the third most important piece here. Amidst scenes of unending cruelty and ugliness, Greenwood hints at redemption and beauty -- abstract concepts just out of this poor, limited fucker’s grasp.
Jean Luc Godard once said that the only way to critique a film was to make another film. In typically uncompromising fashion, Lynne Ramsay has responded with You Were Never Really Here. And what she has to say regarding the manufactured indulgence extruded by the entertainment industry machinery isn’t kind. It’s necessary and exact. She has ripped the black heart out and slapped it on the table, and we can’t look away, though we might want to. It’s a must-see.