' ' Cinema Romantico: You Were Never Really Here

Monday, May 14, 2018

You Were Never Really Here

The world is polluted by noise, whether it’s the omnipresent industrial sounds of the city or the perpetual din of our various electronic devices. As such, movies take great pains to remove that noise. A scene filmed under train tracks siphons the rattle from the soundtrack while a joy ride in a convertible with the top down eliminates the rushing wind so we can actually hear the characters communicating. In “You Were Never Really Here”, however, director Lynne Ramsey, in concert with her sound designer and supervising sound editor Paul Davies, works hard to put all that sound in, concocting a cacophony of a whole city that seems to bring about the slouch of the movie’s protagonist, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), as if he is pinned beneath this unremitting racket. On a stroll through the city, the sound of cars and construction is raised to almost deafening levels. And when the movie ends, Ramsey lets a gaggle of indecipherable voices float over the closing credits. And because the movie has ended, and because the movie has ended the way it has, this conversational low hum pointedly evokes the sensation of so much noise going on long after we have left this rock.

Joe is a traumatized Afghan vet caring for his mentally, physically diminished mother (Judith Roberts) while making money by playing hero, or a version of it, rescuing little girls who have been kidnapped and placed into sex trafficking rings. If his actions at least place Joe on the right side of good and evil, it does not necessarily mean he holds the moral high ground entirely as his methods of salvation are never presented as anything other than brutal. In a scene where he acquires job supplies, Joe lingers over a ballpeen hammer, which Phoenix underlines by grinning, as if search and rescues go hand in hand with grisly kicks. It is a little moment offering a world of insight, which is the standard m.o. of “You Were Never Really Here”, a movie building outwardly in, like a thousand scattered puzzle pieces, all of which fit together by the end though not necessarily in the way that picture on the box might have led you to believe.

“You Were Never Really Here” opens not with any kind of establishing shot but a series of quick close-ups, so jumbled and discursive that it takes you some time to not only piece together what’s happening but that they are not all happening at the same time. What’s more, we don’t even get a real good look at Joe until much later, and even then he seems to be hiding from the camera. This is a movie that makes you work to put it all together, disassembling flashbacks to Joe’s past without ever really settling down to explain what’s what and where he is. This fragmentation, frankly, is a more effective device at putting us in his throbbing headspace, as is Jonny Greenwood’s ferocious score, rather than a brief reference to Joe’s pill-popping.

This abstraction extends to the movie’s violence. As Joe is tasked by a Senator (Alex Manette) to recover his daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), bodies pile up. Even as they do, Ramsey evades the most ghastly details, preferring to artfully elicit an uneasy feeling through atmosphere. As Joe infiltrates the house of horrors where Nina is kept, the scene is scored to Rosie & the Originals’ “Angel Baby” which might have suggested the kind of kicky gratuitousness that Quentin Tarantino loves. Except that Ramsey shoots the scene primarily in obtuse angles from the viewpoint of black and white security cameras, all of which add up to an otherworldly sensation, almost as if the ghost from “The Ring” is starring in a macabre music video.

From there, Joe finds himself ensnared in a web reaching higher than he expected. That it does seems to suggest the movie building toward a traditional sort of climax, particularly as Joe storms a scenic mansion, like a peasant invading Versailles. Yet at the moment of truth, the movie takes a turn, evoked in Joe’s reaction to an unexpected development which Phoenix has the character meet with an incredulous sort of chuckle that is at least as good as Josh Brolin’s fatalistic grunt when finding that case of cash in “No Country For Old Men.” And what seemed to be trending toward superhero territory opts for the surreal, with an ending that simultaneously illuminates and mystifies.

It’s a dangerous game being played by “You Were Never Really Here”, not so much in its anti-narrative as in threatening to dissolve into a cloud of negativist acceptance or tipping into child exploitation. That it dodges these traps is because of the sunshine Ramsey lets in, and the unexpected ways she does, like the bizarre delight Joe finds in picking a lone green jelly bean out of a bowl of all the wrong colors, or, most particularly, the comfort he tenders to a nameless, dying bad guy. It’s a shot recalling the denouement of “Heat”, though that shot was deliberately built to for three hours and this one is just all of a sudden dropped in which is what makes it special. As the dying guy lies there, he and Joe begin singing along with a song on the radio. If they seem to do this in spite of themselves, the tug on your heart might well be in spite of yourself too, and for a moment, all the rest of the noise falls away, leaving you only bizarre, beautiful lyricism.

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