You Were Never Really Here

April 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alex Manette
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”)
Written by: Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”)

Circa 2010, something snapped inside Joaquin Phoenix. We’re not talking about his intentionally awkward marketing crusade for his mockumentary I’m Still Here where he appeared dazed on “Late Show with David Letterman” and provoked talk of a mental health crisis. No, the sudden change in him was more profound than any simulated psychosis. It was like he flicked a switch and raised himself to another level as an actor.

Sure, Phoenix was a solid performer before that. He had already earned two Oscar nominations — for “Gladiator” and “Walk the Line” — and he’s always been popular with mainstream audiences despite never starring in a major tent-pole franchise. But when he received his third Oscar nomination for his transcendent role in writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” followed by a streak of portrayals of emotionally tormented characters — most notably in “Her,” “Inherent Vice” and the underappreciated “The Immigrant” — Phoenix proved that the gear he is currently operating in isn’t one most actors can shift into easily.

Phoenix doesn’t let up in the least in “You Were Never Really Here,” a bleak, dramatic thriller that landed him Best Actor accolades almost a year ago at the Cannes Film Festival. Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay (“We Need to Talk About Kevin”), it’s no surprise an independent film as despairing as “YWNRH” has rolled out nationwide over the last few months at such a leisurely pace. This isn’t the type of project typical moviegoers are going to flock to see. Nor is it one that even the most hardened cinephiles would probably consider enjoyable to watch.

What can be said, however, about “YWNRH” — besides praising Phoenix’s striking turn — is that Ramsay has created an unnerving and aggressive cinematic experience. There is a thin layer of grime that coats the narrative of “YWNRH” that is extremely hard to shake. In fact, in recent years, the only other non-horror films that have felt this demoralizing are Denis Villeneuve’s two 2013 offerings, “Prisoners” and “Enemy,” Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 sci-fi drama “Under the Skin,” Tom Ford’s 2016 crime thriller “Nocturnal Animals” and Ana Asensio’s 2017 chilling film “Most Beautiful Island.” Someone grab the soap, stat!

As well casted as those films are, none of them feature a damaged Phoenix at the peak of his career. In “YWNRH,” he stars as Joe, a disturbed veteran who works for a private investigator to track down missing girls. Joe’s newest mark is a high-profile one. Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the 13-year-old daughter of New York senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), has run away and may have been abducted by an underground sex ring. Armed with a ball-peen hammer, Joe ventures out to reclaim the child, unaware that the situation he is about to confront goes far beyond his paygrade.

A cornerstone of Joe’s character is that he’s a flawed man haunted by a lurid past. He’s there to do one job and nothing more. He’s the epitome of an antihero, and Phoenix plays him flawlessly. For example, when he finds Nina (calm down, it’s in the trailer), there are other underage girls in the house, too, whom he could probably save, but leaves them behind, presumably because they are not part of his mission. Joe is like Javier Bardem’s villain in “No Country for Old Men” or the evil entity in “It Follows.” They’re soulless, unstoppable forces that aren’t distracted by fear or virtue. What makes Joe distinctive, however, are two traits: the glint of humanity he still possesses deep inside his blackened heart, and the indifference he feels for himself. The latter puts such a heavy weight on Phoenix’s shoulders, one might think he was on the Road to Calvary.

Joe is dead inside, and Ramsay knows precisely how to use that to the story’s advantage. There are scenes in “YWNRH” where it almost feels like the film could fade to black at any moment. As the dissonant and offbeat electronic score of Oscar-nominated composer Jonny Greenwood (“Phantom Thread”) pushes Joe to the brink, audiences may wonder if he will make things easier by simply removing himself from the equation. His self-hatred will make it tough for viewers to connect to the character on any meaningful level, but with “YWNRH,” it’s probably a good idea to keep a safe distance.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

March 22, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”)
Written by: Lynne Ramsay (“Morvern Callar”) and Rory Kinnear (debut)

Look, if you’ve seen just one “evil kid” movie, even the most stylistic, well-acted offering in the genre isn’t going to offer you any surprises. A weird little kid is going to do creepy and borderline psychotic things that only one of his parents will notice, leaving the other one to bumble around happily, stopping every so often to reassure their troubled spouse with inane platitudes like, “Oh, you’re just over-reacting” or  “Honey, please…it’s perfectly normal for a boy to continue masturbating while staring you dead in the eyes when you accidentally walk in on him.” Seriously, it happens in “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”

In “Kevin,” troubled mother Eva (Tilda Swinton) deals with the aftermath of a tragedy, slinking through life permanently shattered. She spends her time avoiding personal contact on the street and traveling to visit her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) locked away in prison. Flashbacks fill in the details slowly, as Eva and husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) grow apart through Kevin’s childhood as both parents see very different sides of the same little boy.

Tilda Swinton turns in a fantastic performance as a broken woman who has to deal with a son capable of doing terrible things, a husband who doesn’t believe her, and a community that holds her personally responsible for the awful things Kevin did. While it may serve the artier parts of the movie to alienate Eva from the world, the film never really makes it clear why the townspeople would see fit to slap Eva square in the face in public for expressing the least bit of happiness. The supporting performances are fine, with Ezra Miller bringing the requisite uneasiness to the well-worn trope of the deeply-troubled teenager. A likeable John C. Reilly adds nothing new to the standard oblivious parent role. Also, his recent forays into absurd comedy can’t help but undercut his dramatic performance. That may be unfair, but it remains true and proves to be a minor distraction.

Director Lynne Ramsay piles on the artistry, yet the story remains pedestrian. A palette of blood red permeates Eva’s life before and after the tragedy, from a paint-splattered front porch to a strawberry jam sandwich smashed ominously on a coffee table to a wall of red soup cans, but it all boils down to metaphorical window-dressing that fails to disguise how routine the plot unfolds.