Skip to main content

It’s okay, Joe. It’s okay.

You Were Never Really Here
(2017)

(SPOILERS) I haven't been fully on board with a Lynne Ramsey film since Morvern Callar, and I have a feeling that one would somewhat suffer from a revisit. Of course, there's only been one feature between that and this, 2011's We Need to Talk About Kevin, which evidenced in abundance her virtuoso filmmaking skills but left me less impressed by its horror/comedy impulses. There's a similar mutton-dressed-as-lamb quality to You Were Never Really Here; sterling lead performance, masterful direction, but in service of a screenplay that wouldn't be out of place in a Stallone movie.


They way some would have it, that seems to be the point, that the picture utilises the tropes but denies the catharsis of its mainstream forebears. But Ramsey, who wrote the script based on Jonathan Ames' novella, is able to inject little in the way of the resonance that suffuses Taxi Driver, with which it has been frequently compared. Joaquin Phoenix's PTSD-suffering vet Joe is the stuff of cornball cliché, a burly saviour of trafficked girls – he's a violent man whose violence is on the side of the angels – haunted by memories of his abusive father and his time in Iraq, who returns home each evening to tend to his elderly mother. Simply being a very good director and getting a very good actor to headline doesn't automatically transform those elements into creative gold. 


Indeed, in a ninety-minute movie, the first third of You Were Never Really Here mumbles along as if its laying important groundwork, which then fails to pay off. Ramsey isn't that interested in genre conventions, even though they fuel this kind of exercise, but that should mean she's exploring character instead. Except there isn't much to explore. Joe’s protector relationship with Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) doesn’t evolve beyond the level of broad strokes, even given her agency to ultimately protect herself and offer him the possibility that if she can see that "It’s a beautiful day" then so can he (which seems somewhat unlikely, and for all the indie cred here, seems exactly the kind of spin a typical Hollywood version would give her).


The picture nurses some interestingly retrograde impulses in its characterisation of conspiracy yarns, however, given the current atmosphere is one where they're only sanctioned if they're the right kind of conspiracies (ie Russia's behind them). Joe is paranoid about having his cover blown, telling his handler (John Doman) as much, and he's proved correct when government agents kill his associates, including his mother. What’s more, the government is implicitly stuffed full of state-sanctioned paedophiles getting up to whatever they like, with only one righteous man with a mighty beard standing against them. 


We've seen most of the elements here in its mainstream cousins, often featuring Denzel Washington (Man on Fire, The Equalizer), right down to visiting the hardware store for tools with which to ply his deadly trade. All the reviews reference the scene in which Joe takes the hand of the dying agent who has just tried to kill him, together singing along softly to a cheesy song on the radio, as evidence of Ramsey's craft and distinctiveness. But, while the scene's arresting, it's also supremely affected, almost as if she's looking for a moment where you can say "This isn't what you'd get in a Hollywood actioner". Does Joe show empathy because the guy shot his mother in her sleep rather than making her suffer? Or does he lie next to the assassin breathing his last because, in its own way, it's as "cool" as shooting him full of lead in glorious slow motion?


Ultimately, Phoenix's efforts to perform detail for Joe feel laboured. You know Travis Bickle even though you know next to nothing about him. Joe's a cat person who reproves his mom for watching Psycho alone in the house at night and he loves green jelly beans; it's close to a sendup of the kind of character crutches demanded by method actor, and the inversion that is the (sturdy) child caring for the fragile adult is as much of a cliché as the ones Ramsey is attempting to trample. Joe's still a kick-ass killer, he still wears the heroic malaise of the tortured child who becomes the righteous executioner. And the final hopeful line is still trite, whichever way you wash it.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.