YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay adapted from Jonathan Ames’ novel
Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Location: Park Avenue, NYC, 5/22/18
Opens: April 6, 2018
Novelist Jonathan Ames, whose 112-page novella “You Were Never Really Here” comes across as a book written to be put on the screen, may not have had the current administration in the White House and Capitol Hill in mind when he described the corruption endemic in our system. No matter. Corruption is embraced under many generations of politicians in the U.S., which is why this adaptation situates its evil within the East Side-Midtown area of Manhattan, close to the UN and to the purveyors of capital. It may or may not be a coincidence that the mansion depicted in the final scenes could resemble a likeness of breathtaking wealth during the gilded age, where money rules, where in fact there are no rules, and to get things done all you have to do is hire the right kind of guy to do it.
In this noirish adaptation, writer-director Lynne Ramsay—whose “We Need to Talk About Kevin” about a mother made meek because of an “incident” must struggle to love her strange child—focuses now on another person of disturbed psyche. And who can blame Joe (Joaquin Phoenix)? He was brutalized by his father, became an FBI agent and then a soldier in the Iraq War, and sees ghosts wherever he goes. The specters are often women with dead eyes who stalk him, evoked by his experience in Iraq where he sees a girl killed. He simply was never really there for her. He dedicates his remaining time to the service of a hit man, but so far as we can see he’s a good guy. He is part of an organization that rescues girls kidnapped for sex slavery, with Nina Voto (Ekaterina Samsonov) standing in for one thirteen-year-old that he rescues, but her own zonked out appearance could have resulted as much from abuse she faced from her father, State Senator Albert Voto (Alex Manette), as from her treatment as a sex slave. The senator tells Joe, his hit man (for $50,000) that she often ran away from home. Her unprotected status made her easy prey for the perverted criminals who hooked her into their lair.
The picture is filled with violence, yet don’t expect to see a grand build-up leading to a massive assassination. The particularly artistic tone of the eighty-nine minute film presents violence often as events that had already happened, as though Joe was conducting the fury and the bloodshed off screen like the ancient Greek tragedians. His weapon of choice is a hammer, and he appears to buy a different one for each killing. One of the killings has poetry. As his victim is on the ground, blood gushing from his stomach, Joe lies down with the man, joins him in singing a song from the radio, and holds his hand—whether to ease his pain of death or to sense when the fellow has taken his final breath.
Joe’s gentle moments appear in his treatment of his mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he lives, and also in his care for the rescued thirteen-year-old. Most important as we look over the whole scene is that rarely has a crime drama been told with such a lean and mean focus, cutting everything to the bone—with moments of ironic peace such as when Joe buries a victim, large plastic bag and all, into the lake, wading into the water with suit and tie.
This picture is all about Joaquin Phoenix’s performance, one that will hopefully be remembered at end-year awards time. The grizzled man with a huge beard, glassy eyes, with the aura of someone wandering with seeming aimlessness as though through a dream albeit with a specific purpose, is mesmerizing. Yet the film is for a special taste, for an audience that does not need to see the actual commissions of crimes graphically reproduced, but is more than content to focus primarily not on the brutality but on one disturbed man’s psyche.
Rated R. 89 Minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, NY Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+