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

You are, by your own admission, a vagabond.

Doctor Who Season 10 - Worst to Best
Season 10 has the cachet of an anniversary year, one in which two of its stories actively trade on the past and another utilises significant elements. As such, it’s the first indication of the series’ capacity for slavishly indulging the two-edged sword that is nostalgia, rather than simply bringing back ratings winners (the Daleks). It also finds the show at its cosiest, a vibe that had set in during the previous season, which often seemed to be taking things a little too comfortably. Season 10 is rather more cohesive, even as it signals the end of an era (with Jo’s departure). As a collection of stories, you perhaps wouldn’t call it a classic year, but as a whole, an example of the Pertwee UNIT era operating at its most confident, it more than qualifies.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

In a few moments, you will have an experience that will seem completely real. It will be the result of your subconscious fears transformed into your conscious awareness.

Brainstorm (1983)
(SPOILERS) Might Brainstorm have been the next big thing – a ground-breaking, game-changing cinematic spectacle that had as far reaching consequences as Star Wars (special effects) or Avatar (3D) – if only Douglas Trumbull had been allowed to persevere with his patented “Showscan” process (70mm film photographed and projected at 60 frames per second)? I suspect not; one only has to look at the not-so-far-removed experiment of Ang Lee with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and how that went down like a bag of cold sick, to doubt that any innovation will necessarily catch on (although Trumbull at least had a narrative hinge on which to turn his “more real than real” imagery, whereas Lee’s pretty much boiled down to “because it was there”). Brainstorm’s story is, though, like its title, possibly too cerebral, too much concerned with the consciousness and touting too little of the cloyingly affirmative that Bruce Rubin inevitably brings to his screenplays. That doesn’t mea…

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ (or Zootopia as our American cousins refer to it; the European title change being nothing to do with U2, but down to a Danish zoo, it seems, which still doesn’t explain the German title, though) creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). It’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

So credit’s due to co-directors Byron Howard (Bolt, Tangled) and Rich Moore (of The Simpsons, Futurama, and latterly, the great until it kind of rests on its laurels Wreck-It-Ralph) and Jared Bush (presumably one of the th…

You can’t keep the whole world in the dark about what’s going on. Once they know that a five-mile hunk of rock is going to hit the world at 30,000 miles per hour, the people will want to know what the hell we intend to do about it.

Meteor (1979)
(SPOILERS) In which we find Sean Connery – or his agent, whom he got rid of subsequent to this and Cuba – showing how completely out of touch he was by the late 1970s. Hence hitching his cart to the moribund disaster movie genre just as movie entertainment was being rewritten and stolen from under him. He wasn’t alone, of course – pal Michael Caine would appear in both The Swarm and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure during this period – but Meteor’s lack of commercial appeal was only accentuated by how functional and charmless its star is in it. Some have cited Meteor as the worst movie of his career (Christopher Bray in his book on the actor), but its sin is not one of being outright terrible, rather of being terminally dull.

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

You keep a horse in the basement?

The ‘Burbs (1989)
(SPOILERS) The ‘Burbs is Joe Dante’s masterpiece. Or at least, his masterpiece that isn’t his bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you masterpiece Gremlins 2: The New Batch, or his high profile masterpiece Gremlins. Unlike those two, the latter of which bolted out of the gate and took audiences by surprise with it’s black wit subverting the expected Spielberg melange, and the first which was roundly shunned by viewers and critics for being absolutely nothing like the first and waving that fact gleefully under their noses, The ‘Burbs took a while to gain its foothold in the Dante pantheon. 

It came out at a time when there had been a good few movies (not least Dante’s) taking a poke at small town Americana, and it was a Tom Hanks movie when Hanks was still a broad strokes comedy guy (Big had just made him big, Turner and Hooch was a few months away; you know you’ve really made it when you co-star with a pooch). It’s true to say that some, as with say The Big Lebowski, “got it” on fi…

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Well, if we destroy Kansas the world may not hear about it for years.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)
In conception, Diamonds are Forever was a retreat to safer ground for the series following the “failure” of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In the end, it proved to be a significant break in tone and humour from what had gone before. More playfulness was evident in the heightened characterisations and settings, but simultaneously more boundaries were pushed in terms of sex and violence. Las Vegas lends the film a tarnished, glitterball quality that would quite accurately predict the excess and decadence of the coming decade. And presiding over the proceedings was a greying Bond, somewhat gone to seed and looking noticeably older than the near-decade it was since his first appearance. Somehow, the result is as sparkling and vital as the diamonds of the title, but it is understandably a curate’s egg. In many respects it bears more resemblance to the camp affectations, eccentricities and quirks of the television series The Avengers than the more straightforward…