Phoenix de­liv­ers breath­tak­ing per­for­mance in You Were Never Re­ally Here

The Welland Tribune - - Arts & Life - JON EBEN FIELD

Lynne Ram­say’s lat­est psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller, “You Were Never Re­ally Here,” which re­ceived a seven-minute stand­ing ova­tion at the Cannes Film Fes­ti­val upon its pre­mier, is a taut ex­am­i­na­tion of the frag­men­tary na­ture of iden­tity in con­tem­po­rary ex­pe­ri­ence that dis­turbs and dis­rupts the pat­terns and as­sump­tions that al­low us to feel safe.

There are three el­e­ments to this film that make it nec­es­sary watch­ing if you are in­ter­ested in great cin­ema: 1. Joaquin Phoenix’s tour de force act­ing; 2. the dy­namic, chal­leng­ing and master­ful cin­e­matog­ra­phy; and 3. the use of sound and mu­sic to cre­ate ten­sion and in­ter­weave emo­tions into highly fraught scenes.

In “You Were Never Re­ally Here,” Phoenix plays Joe, a re­tired veteran, a ded­i­cated care­giver to his elderly mother, and a fixer who spe­cial­izes in res­cu­ing ab­ducted young girls who have been sold into sex­ual slav­ery. With a ball-peen ham­mer in hand,

Joe bru­tally pun­ishes those peo­ple who have taken these young girls.

Phoenix’s por­trayal of the psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal bru­tal­ity that have brought him to this frag­men­tary and com­plex ex­is­tence is noth­ing short of breath­tak­ing. His body car­ries a rugged vi­o­lence, which is both a nec­es­sary re­lease and a ter­ri­ble con­se­quence for him, all while his body bears the phys­i­cal scars that re­veal the psy­cho­log­i­cal tolls ex­acted in cre­at­ing a man of his char­ac­ter.

Ram­say has be­come known as one of the great­est di­rec­tors work­ing to­day through metic­u­lous draft­ing of scripts, non-lin­ear nar­ra­tive struc­tures, and work­ing with some of the best sound de­sign­ers and com­posers in film.

Her last film, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” starred Tilda Swin­ton as the mother of a boy who has com­mit­ted a mass shoot­ing in a school and is sub­se­quently forced to deal with the af­ter­math. Ram­say does not stray from forc­ing her au­di­ence to closely ex­am­ine and ques­tion dif­fi­cult ques­tions about so­ci­ety and its role in cre­at­ing vi­o­lence and de­struc­tion in her char­ac­ters’ lives. Her films also fo­cus on how our so­cial struc­tures and in­sti­tu­tions al­low chil­dren to be treated in un­eth­i­cal ways. The vi­o­lence in “You Were Never Re­ally Here” is so dif­fer­ent from Hol­ly­wood por­tray­als that it bears ex­pla­na­tion. Joe’s vi­o­lence is never glam­orous or bal­letic. There are no chore­ographed fight scenes. Many of the scenes where we see Joe tak­ing out the se­cu­rity men dur­ing his ex­trac­tions are filmed us­ing static CCTV cam­eras; his move­ments are dev­as­tat­ing and quick, and there is no time for re­sis­tance. But if these mo­ments of vi­o­lence are filled with surety and ease, then the rest of Joe’s life is a frag­men­tary con­struc­tion where the past can re­turn in an in­stant and de­stroy any at­tempt he has made to pull him­self into a uni­fied iden­tity.

Much of the film es­tab­lishes the psy­cho­log­i­cal com­plex­ity and in­ner tor­ment of Joe. I would rec­om­mend watch­ing both “Psycho” by Al­fred Hitch­cock and “Taxi Driver” by Martin Scors­ese be­fore watch­ing this film as they are ob­vi­ous an­tecedents and ci­ta­tions for what we see. The beauty of Ram­say’s di­rect­ing is that there

are no easy an­swers in pars­ing out Joe’s life. We are given schisms of his past through multi-sec­ond mem­o­ries that are of­ten cou­pled with jar­ring and dis­tort­ing mu­sic or sounds that are deeply dis­turb­ing. When mem­o­ries come to Joe, there are im­ages of vi­o­lence, abuse and death be­gin­ning in his young life through to his life as a sol­dier.

The mu­si­cal score has been com­posed by Jonny Green­wood, of Ra­dio­head fame, who has es­tab­lished him­self as one of the most dy­namic and in­ter­est­ing film com­posers work­ing to­day. His score for “There Will Be Blood” is an in­te­gral el­e­ment to that film’s bril­liance. The same can be said of his work here. What Green­wood has cre­ated is a sonic re­flec­tion of the ten­sions in the film.

This film pits cor­rup­tion, pol­i­tics, PTSD, pe­dophilia, the in­no­cence of chil­dren, men’s love of their moth­ers, and western be­liefs sur­round­ing the ac­cept­abil­ity of vi­o­lence in film and me­dia into a form that is noth­ing short of bril­liant.

“You Were Never Re­ally Here” is dis­rup­tive and dis­turb­ing and you will leave the cin­ema changed by its con­tent. This film’s per­tur­ba­tion of western so­ci­ety’s com­fort with the sex­u­al­iza­tion of chil­dren and the preva­lent ac­cep­tance of gun-based vi­o­lence is a beau­ti­ful tonic that de­mands much of the au­di­ence, but the re­wards for watch­ing are rich.


Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Re­ally Here.

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