Monday, April 16, 2018

You Were Never Really Here

In my experience, when you go through something horrific, it stays with you in flashes. We all carry trauma differently, of course, but horror has always followed me around in glimpses.

Most movies and television shows do not depict trauma this way. In mainstream fiction, trauma stays with you for every second of every day. You can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You can’t work. There is no room for life, no room for adjustment. In my reality, after some time has passed on pain, the effects of it sneak up on you when you least expect it. It’s a song playing in a grocery store, a person with a similar face, a stranger with a familiar smell. You experience these random things, and a flash of grief consumes you. But it does subside, if ever so slightly. You breathe, you calm down. And then you do the dishes, you go back to work; you adjust, you live.

Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), the lead character of You Were Never Really Here, experiences trauma like this. He’s walking down the street, minding his own business (or not), and he sees a reminder. That reminder triggers a flash of horror, and he pauses. He’s stuck, paralyzed by grief. His memory is his enemy. But he does regroup. He does breathe, and he does go about his day. These flashes do not entirely make sense to us, simply because they do not make sense to Joe. How do you explain the unexplainable? How do you clarify the horrors of war or the hell you endured as a child? The bitch of it is, whether you can rationalize your trauma or not, most of us are required to go about our day regardless. 

But given the path Joe is on as a result of the trauma he has experienced, a day for him looks very different than a day for myself.
Lynne Ramsay’s new film, You Were Never Really Here, is a masterpiece of modern cinema. I say that now, just as I will say it when I draft my list of my favorite films of 2018, and later, when I highlight the best movies of the decade. This is not hyperbole. This is not a sugar high. I won’t backtrack on this review once the film has settled in my mind. Point in fact, as each of the film’s brisk 90 minutes passed, I knew I was experiencing something new, and profound. Something that was taking risks in every aspect of filmmaking, from one frame to the next.

You Were Never Really Here is an operatic, underground crime, surrealist work of art that should be viewed (and reviewed) in its full visual form, not in snippets provided in trailers and reviews. There are many startling things about the film, most notable is that it contains themes that even casual filmgoers have seen recycled dozens of times. The hitman with a conscience, the underground brothel, the damsel in distress, the moody city atmosphere, the brutal revenge. However, I can confidently say that You Were Never Really Here handles these narrative themes in a way I have never seen in a movie before. This is a film that stands boldly, and proudly, on its own.  

But it does not stand easily. Lynne Ramsay makes challenging cinema, and You Were Never Really Here is no exception. To appreciate the film, you are required to lean forward and pay attention. The dialogue is written how people speak, which means there is very little explanation of action or motivation. The sound design is invasive and informs character, the cinematography is as gorgeous as it is compact, and the editing can be shockingly rapid. All of these aspects of the film (not to mention Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score, itself a character) are flawless, but they are not what we are used to seeing.
I have a feeling, for instance, that You Were Never Really Here will be labeled as an extremely violent film. I disagree. It is violent, yes, but the violence is real and never glorified. Punches hurt, headbutts render people motionless, and a bullet kills as efficiently as a single blow to the head with a hammer. There is no head-bashing slow motion, no blood sprayed out of fresh wounds, no large crowds of people flattened by a collapsing city. There is, instead, a realistic depiction of a very dark world. But what Ramsay chooses to show us of that world is far more tasteful than it would be in more sensationalized hands. Ramsay often cuts away from the violence, choosing instead to show us its immediate effect on the characters after the fact. Yes, a murder has just taken place, but how does that impact the people involved who are still breathing? 

Joaquin Phoenix’s quiet, brooding work as Joe rivals any performance the actor has delivered. Phoenix’s physical transformation (he gained a significant amount of weight and muscle for the part) is nearly as astonishing as his emotional arc in the film. This is a performance void of artifice; it is true and wholly authentic. Phoenix is so adept at informing us who Joe is, not with words, but with movement and expression. His body is as scarred as his mind. This is a fractured man, Travis Bickle of now, lost on his own. I relished following his every move, even if I didn’t always agree with his choices. This is, to be clear, screen acting of the highest order.

For more than two decades, Lynne Ramsay has made a career out of telling stories the way she wants to tell them. There is nothing conventional about her approach to narrative or character, and cinema is better off for it. She has, dare I say, eclipsed her acclaimed status with You Were Never Really Here. This is a demanding film that deserves to be seen, and studied, and remembered. 

A funny thing happened immediately after I saw the movie. I was walking around in a daze, utterly transfixed by what I had just seen. Suddenly, like Joe, something caught my eye that reminded me of a particularly troubling event in my life. A therapist might say I was looking for such a reminder, a sort of emotional transference based on the connection I had with the movie. Maybe. I froze for a moment, then kept walking. Joe might stop and brood. He might let that flash force him down another dark alley. But me, I just walked until I wasn’t bothered anymore. And somehow, strangely, I knew I had You Were Never Really Here to thank for that. How often does that happen? A+

23 comments:

  1. I SO want to see this. It's Lynne Ramsay. She's truly a filmmaker that doesn't play by the rules and always goes the extra mile to go to places most filmmakers don't go into. I'm still waiting for the film to be at my local multiplex or nearby. I really want to see it since I heard about it at Cannes last year.

    When it comes to music, I think only she and Sofia Coppola are the only two filmmakers who know how to use music for a film and make it feel right.

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    1. You will love this movie. I can't wait to read your official thoughts. I really hope it gets a wider release, because it is too damn limited right now. The music in the film is indeed excellent. Experimental but appropriate throughout.

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  2. I've been wanting to see this ever since it was announced. I loved Ramsay's We Need to Talk About Kevin. Now I'm even more excited for this. Excellent review!

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    1. Thanks! It is a great, challenging film. I cannot wait to see it again and again. Hope you get to see it soon!

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  3. I really need to see this! Also I'm a tad devastated rn cos Drew deleted his blog :(

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    1. It's so damn good. I'll remember it forever. And wait, Drew who?!

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    2. I bet you will!, and Andrew, y'know, Fisti?

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    3. Ahh damn, I really dug his site. But I totally get it. You get older and priorities change. I used to post 22 times a month! I can't fathom doing that now. I still enjoy blogging, but the readership and engagement seems to have universally died down on film blogs. I think it peaked in 2012/2013 and has been slowly declining ever since. A shame, but it's the way it goes I suppose.

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    4. Which sucks cos I only got into it in line 2015. In fact it was his and Josh's blogs that helped me get into foreign movies and stuff. (And I ust really liked talking to him, he was so nice :()

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    5. And to be clear, I meant peaked in terms of blogger quantity. There were so many of us posting so damn much! The quality is still in tact for sure. But those were always two of my favorite sites as well.

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    6. @Zach Antle: Fisti was a helluva guy, I remember several in the blogosphere wrote tributes when he went on hiatus. But I think it's time to move on as Fisti hasn't posted since Jan 2017. He needed to prioritize his family and kids. I'm sure you can find other friendly blogs to read, you know?

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  4. I just saw this last night. As it started I was thinking of your post about Soderbergh's 3 shot rule and this film passes with flying colors. Fantastic way to open such an impressionistic piece of filmmaking.

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    1. I also thought about how Bresson uses sound. One of his "notes" from "Notes on Cinematography" (if you haven't read this yet, I urge you to) is "A sound must never come to the help of a image, nor an image to help the of sound." Ramsay uses this philosophy throughout the film. Audio fragments, unconventional framing. She never tells us how to feel about Joe. Lynn's only made four features but whenever I watch one it is a bottomless well from where I can get inspiration.

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    2. Hell YES it passes that three-shot rule. Remarkable. Everything about this damn movie was remarkable. That quote applies so well to this film (and Ramsay's other work). Great pull there. Joe is such a gray character, and that's why I adored him. Thanks for these comments!

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  5. Great review. I am really looking forward to this one. Looks like Joaquin Phoenix surpassed himself here.

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    1. Thanks so much! I know my review seemed a bit ecstatic, and I didn't want to indulge that further by hailing Joe as Phoenix's best performance... but it just is. He is a great, great actor, but he certainly has surpassed himself.

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    2. Going to see it on Sunday with my son. Can't get enough of Phoenix...he was brilliant in The Master...if this tops that performance well...

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    3. Can't wait to hear your thoughts. I saw it again over the weekend and I believe it is his best. So so good.

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  6. Joaquin Phoenix I consider among the best living actors without an oscar. His role in You Were Never Really Here sounds like another brilliant performance!

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    1. It is so damn good. I fear that that the film will be too radical for Oscar voters. And its early-in-the-year release date won't help Phoenix's chances either. But we shall see!

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  7. Amazing review - I hope I get the chance to see this. Though I don't have the stomach for a lot of violence in films, I like the point you made about it. Movies that include displays of blood or real physical repercussions are often considered gory and gratuitous but superheros dropping cities on millions of people is an acceptable fantasy. The labeling between the two are definitely skewed.

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    1. Thanks Katy! I could write post after post about the contradictory nature of violence in cinema. It's baffling to me that, for example, one person realistically and not gratuitously dies in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, and it's rated R for violence. But entire cities are wiped out in PG-13 action flicks, and no one cares. That isn't a full knock on superhero movies, because a lot of great filmmakers depict violence in gratuitous ways. But I do not think a movie that depicts violence realistically (as You Were Never Really Here does) should be immediately labeled as ultra violent (which, in turn, keeps viewers away).

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  8. Odd request but can you name all the movies on your new banner? I can only see Apocalypse Now,
    Phantom Thread
    Heat
    Love
    He Got Game
    ?
    Casino

    Raging Bull
    ?
    ?
    Eyes Without a Face
    ?
    ? (Winter Light?)
    High & Low (good lad)

    You Were Never Really Here
    ? (Brackhage?)
    Silence of the Lambs
    Melancholia (-_-)
    Black Narcissus
    Fish Tank
    Vertigo

    Always a shame collaging so many great stills for the title to then cover some :')

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