Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Top Ten List #2 You Were Never Really Here

Director Lynne Ramsay

Lynne Ramsay on the set with actor Joaquin Phoenix

Award winners Ramsay and Phoenix at Cannes

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE                   A                    
Great Britain  France  USA  (95 mi)  2017  ‘Scope  d:  Lynne Ramsay              Official site

It’s an absolute pleasure to become reacquainted with this filmmaker after such a long absence, as it’s been seven years since We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011).  She’s especially gifted in conveying mood and atmosphere, where flashbacks frequent her films, allowing deeper insight into character, where this is a deeply probing character study.  Adapted from the Jonathan Ames novel, the film was actually released in competition at Cannes (while still a work in progress, now with fewer flashbacks and the sound design is finally completed) a year before the book was published, earning a seven-minute standing ovation afterwards while winning best screenplay and best actor for Joaquin Phoenix, which is surprising, as this is largely a wordless film.  It is unfathomable how Sofia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes for The Beguiled (2017) , a sexually repressed costume drama and compromised period piece over this film, which is dense and magisterial in comparison, accentuated by Ramsay’s superb directing, easily one of the better directed films in any film year.  One can only conclude that it was all about the privilege of being a Coppola, which carries plenty of weight on the festival circuit, though every single one of Ramsay’s films have been a directing sensation, as it is her most distinguishing characteristic as an artist and filmmaker, where she conveys a fiercely uncompromising spirit in every release.  So while she was awarded for special distinction, it was in the wrong category, a problem that plagues nearly all film festivals, but especially Cannes in recent years.   Hopefully this does not deter Ramsay from getting work, only her fourth film in the last 18 years, as she’s developed a reputation for being difficult, but this is a sexist smear, as she was completely discredited by none other than Hollywood mogul Stephen Spielberg after Ramsay was hired to adapt a screenplay from the 2002 Alice Sebold novel The Lovely Bones and direct the film, working for a year in preparation, only to be fired by producer Spielberg in favor of fellow blockbuster filmmaker Peter Jackson, who made a positively dreadful film in 2009 accentuating a brightness of tone for a film about rape and serial killings, even dismemberment, leaving out the dark edge that Ramsay specializes in.  Her reputation in the industry has never recovered, where only true cinema aficionados, apparently, understand and appreciate her worth, as she’s simply never made a bad film and is among the most superlative directors working today, but damn if she can find work after that earlier incident, which caused her considerable heartache.  Spielberg has never apologized or even recognized the error of his ways, but it’s the worst thing that could have happened to this rising star, excluding her from the old boys club where in the past decade men direct more than 95% of all Hollywood films, basically putting the squeeze on her career, making it that much more difficult to find work.  As if to compound that problem, Ramsay walked away from the western JANE GOT A GUN in 2013 after a standoff with producer Scott Stendorff over delays and his refusal to relinquish control of the final cut, claiming they wanted a completely different film than the one she intended to deliver.

A tense film noir thriller in every respect, with a command for editing and texture, opening with a fragmented piece of experimental cinema, what stands out is the disorienting camera work by Thomas Townend juxtaposed against Jonny Greenwood’s abrasive electronic score, one of the more unusual in his repertoire, featuring evocative sound effects that may have viewers squirming in their seats.  Joaquin Phoenix has a history of playing damaged souls, but has never been in a film made by Ramsay, who pays particular attention to his hulking physique, a man plagued by traumatizing war flashbacks and suicidal impulses, where the focus is on his inner turmoil, creating a kaleidoscopic portrait of his fractured psyche, where he remembers the lifeless feet of children that he saw while he was stationed overseas as a soldier and repeatedly sees ghosts of the past.  Perhaps it takes a man with his deeply disturbing history, having survived the atrocities of war, and a career in the FBI, along with an abusive and tormenting father, which all have a debilitating effect on him, literally replaying in his mind as he’s carrying out his assignment, which is rescuing underaged girls kidnapped in sex rings.  While that sounds admirable, we quickly learn the extent of what he’s willing to do, where he resembles a one-man wrecking crew, a RAMBO-like assassination team that destroys with amazing efficiency.  Alone in an alleyway after completing a job, he’s accosted by an assailant, making short work of him with a quick headbutt that has the intruder wailing on the ground, unable to come to their senses, while he calmly walks away.  He lives with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) in his childhood home, an unpretentious apartment in Queens, tenderly looking after her between jobs, where we catch a glimpse of them singing old familiar songs together as he helps her out polishing the silverware.  His next assignment is a tricky one, as it involves the abducted teenage daughter of a New York State Senator, Albert Votto (Alex Manette).  As we see him go about his routines, hiring a car, going shopping, buying tape and a hammer, while also having a sauna to get his mind right, he surveils the brothel property, watching who comes in and out, grabbing one of them, obtaining layout information, including the front door lock combination.  As he enters, viewers watch security footage as the throbbing music takes on its own mindset as we hear a 60’s pop tune playing throughout the dingy hotel-like premises, Rosie & The Originals - Angel Baby (1961) - YouTube (2:45), reminiscent of David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET (1986), quickly dispatching of guards and customers alike, leaving them in a heap on the floor, with a blip on the soundtrack quickly jumping ahead like a record skip, with a sense of dread looming down the hallways, creating extraordinary levels of suspense with the camera simply following as he explores room to room, finally coming upon Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).  Whispering to her “Close your eyes” as he finishes off yet another, lifting her in his arms as he carries her to safety.  Identifying himself as Joe, likely a made-up name, he’s surprisingly gentle and careful of her fragile mental state as he puts her up in a hotel room awaiting contact from her father. 

Like the best laid plans, this one goes awry, with Nina aghast at watching television news clips of her father jumping off a 20-story hotel ledge to his death.  Without any time to process what happened, heavily armed police officers storm through the door, overpowering them and taking the girl, blood splattered across Joe’s face, with a bullet lodged in his teeth, where Joe is left to wrestle with the one officer left behind, where he manages to escape, extracting the bullet on his own afterwards, like something we might have seen in graphic westerns.  But all his previous contacts wind up dead, including his beloved mother, all part of a corrupt scheme between local and federal agents, where assassinations are part of an upended political power struggle, an internalized coup d’état that effectively shifts the power in someone’s direction, all done behind the scenes without public scrutiny, where Joe is left on his own to try to figure things out.  With agents already waiting for him at home, he sneaks in, killing one and wounding the other, expressed simultaneous to flashbacks of his father’s brutally inflicted violence, eerily extracting information from the dying man that Nina is the favorite of Governor Williams (Alessandro Nivola).  Completely ostracized and utterly demoralized, he buries his mother in a peaceful lake ritual that includes his own suicide as well, putting an end to his worries, yet with visions of Nina he has second thoughts, deciding he has unfinished business, becoming a Charles Bronson-style vigilante, a larger-than-life figure who is more mythic that real, an avenging angel in the Travis Bickle mode, vowing “Someday, a real rain will come and wash all this scum off the streets.”  Inevitable comparisons will be made to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and rightly so, as there are few other films that demonstrate this sustained level of brilliance, where the meticulous attention to detail resembles the miraculous artistry of Scorsese, yet Ramsay has her own nihilistic vision on display, creating an impressionistic, psychologically rooted revenge saga with subliminal suicidal triggers that flare-up along the way, yet this portrait of such a deeply wounded soul is outrageously on the mark, where the quirky physicality of Phoenix takes hold, revealing a body riddled with scars, a roadmap of deep turmoil, as bruised and battered as his mind, yet completely unafraid of the moment.  As we hear the familiar refrains of “Angel Baby” echoing throughout the immense corridors of the Governor’s private retreat, the exquisite cataclysmic finale feels apocalyptic, otherworldly, almost unbearably intense, largely because of the recalled brilliance of the earlier rampage montage.  Ramsay leaves out significant portions of the storyline, creating a minimalist, streamlined version, with most of the horror taking place off camera, while an interior psychological mood dominates the screen, which plays out so effortlessly, as we return to what is essentially familiar territory, where the mindset of the viewer is completely in simpatico with what’s playing onscreen.  Phoenix’s powerful presence lends itself to a heroic finale, but he’s matched by the vulnerability of Samsonov, who tames the beast, so to speak, with her innocence, despite the tragic ordeal she’s been through.  Still carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders at the end, we shudder to think how this might all play out, becoming almost comedic with a surreal daydream sequence, as both damaged figures are an absurdly matched pair.  The portrait of Phoenix, including Ramsay’s earlier film Kevin, with hints of Taxi Driver, are unglamorous views of toxic masculinity that are prevalent not just in America but around the world.  This has become a driving force in contemporary global politics, Putin and Trump, including negative views of women, blacks, and immigrants (or anyone who doesn’t think like us is fake), and the lack of social justice that exists because of it.  By choosing a traumatized war veteran, with suicidal flashbacks and flaws galore (yet who sings silly songs with his mother!), Ramsay’s getting at the heart of hero worship, a complete contrast to Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014), which is all myth and bravado.  Despite a Charles Bronson-style vigilante revenge drama genre, she humanizes him at every turn and makes him just as fragile as the damaged girl, where they are mirror images of each other at the end.  End credit thanks to French filmmaker Jacques Audiard, maker of Dheepan (2015) and 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #10 A Prophet (Un Prophète), suggest a kinship of spirits, both advocates of ferociously uncompromising filmmaking.  

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