‘You Were Never Really Here’: Film Review | Cannes 2017

You Were Never Really Here - Cannes Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
There's some there there.

Lynne Ramsay, the director of 'Ratcatcher' and 'We Need to Talk About Kevin,' teams with Joaquin Phoenix for a mysterious tale about a hitman trying to save a teen prostitute.

There was a nine-year gap between the appearance of Lynne Ramsay’s second feature, Morvern Callar (2002), and her third, We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011). Fans of arguably Scotland’s most distinctive living director have only had to wait a mere six years for her latest, You Were Never Really Here. Surely that’s a hopeful sign she’s speeding up, especially given the well-publicized conflagration over her abandoning Jane Got a Gun a couple of years back just before shooting started because of budget issues.

Was it worth the wait for You Were Never Really Here? That’s not a question that can be answered responsibly with a simple yes or no. A blood-soaked tone poem about a hitman (Joaquin Phoenix) hired to save a 14-year-old girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a child-prostitution ring, this intoxicatingly stylish work is all over the place, a hot mess at times so ravishing it sends shivers down to the toes. Unfortunately, it’s also at times just plain crass and silly.

Since the cut that premiered at Cannes lacked end credits, hopefully there’s wiggle room for further refinement before it finally hits distribution, although it’s doubtful any amount of rejigging could turn this into something that will play theatrically much beyond the specialty circuit. On the other hand, YWNRH may be one of those films that improves with a second viewing and the right kind of cinematic context. Amazon Studios has acquired it for the U.S., so when the time comes for online distribution the human beings behind the algorithms might consider nudging customers to home program it next to complementary works such as, for example, Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, which is clearly in YWNRH’s rearview mirror, from the driving scenes and political corruption theme to the homage embedded in the opulently gory brothel rescue sequence.

An even better companion piece for living-room double bills might be Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and not just because both the latter and this film star Joaquin Phoenix in florid form. Both movies are loopy, dreamy, near-disaster zones that flirt coquettishly with genre conventions — detective fiction for Inherent Vice, the killer-redeemed-through-killing subgenre for YWNRH. But ultimately both have about as much interest in solving their core mysteries as Solaris does in exploring outer space.

That said, if we are to credit YWNRH and its filmmakers with an audacious disregard for naturalism, plot mechanics and providing the kind of pop-psychology audiences expect to help them connect the dots with motivation, why does the film bother to insert so many on-the-nose flashbacks? In the very first few minutes of the film, which sees hired killer Joe (Phoenix) cleaning up after his latest hit in a fleabag motel, quick inserts stab in images of a traumatized little boy (who will turn out to be Joe as kid) and of a dying girl’s twitching feet (what he saw while serving in the armed forces somewhere hot, dusty and brutal).

The film will return to these shots and others again and again, dropping hints and suggestions that help fill in the blanks, maybe a little bit too much, about who exactly Joe is. In the present, he’s a beefy, taciturn hitman loner with a fetish for self-asphyxiation. Joe lives with his fragile but delightful mother (Judith Roberts, marvelous) in one of New York’s outer boroughs and accepts his commissions through middleman John McCleary (John Doman). In the past, it would seem he was first a little boy physically abused, as was his mother, by a violent father. He grew up to join the military and fought abroad (Iraq maybe, or Afghanistan) and then worked for the FBI, an experience that left him particularly disturbed after he worked a case of human trafficking that ended with a truck full of dead Asians.

Ramsay, collaborating here once again after Kevin with both editor Joe Bini (a longtime Werner Herzog associate) and composer Jonny Greenwood (P.T. Anderson alumni), strains hard to make the flickering transitions between memory and the present, between what’s real and what’s not, seem oneiric and slantwise.

Sometimes, the pedals get pressed just right on the organ and the result is rewarding, for instance in a sequence where Joe comes back to his own home to find the bad guys have got there before him, and the inserted flashbacks to his father’s violence years ago make perfect sense. But then there will be visual tricks, like a shocker in the last five minutes, which just feel like a gimmick or, even worse, a misfiring joke. Indeed, the tone isn’t always easy to gauge throughout, although surely nothing but laughter is expected when Joe holds hands with someone he just shot as the man dies and they mumble-sing together Charlene’s easy-listening classic hymn to self-actualization, “I’ve Never Been to Me.”

That tonal indeterminacy is particularly problematic when it comes to the core plotline concerning Joe’s efforts to rescue Nina (eye-catching child actor Ekaterina Samsonov, recently seen in Cannes competition rival Wonderstruck as well) from a fancy Manhattan brothel. Originally, Joe is hired by Nina’s father (Alex Manette), a state senator no less, who understandably asks Joe to rough up the monsters who are imprisoning and repeatedly raping his only child, but later doubt is cast on his motivations, or even his relationship to the girl. The screenplay credited to Ramsay, based on a short novel by Jonathan Ames, makes only a token attempt to explain what the hell is going on in the closing 20 minutes and one can’t help wondering if great chunks got junked in the editing suite. At least that would explain why Alessandro Nivola’s character barely has a line of dialogue.

Ramsay’s debut feature, Ratcatcher, also revolved around children with bruised, haunted eyes and barely explained traumas that made them violent and cruel to one another, but there was never anything facile or glib about that film. Unfortunately, one can’t make the same claim for You Were Never Really Here even if it undeniably has moments of magic that resonate long after it finishes, including an underwater scene that’s uses shafts of light and air bubbles in an almost rapturous, religious way. Originally a still photographer, Ramsay has an eye for composition and near-abstraction that connects her more with art world figures like Bill Viola and Gerhard Richter than her British film contemporaries. Let’s hope the next film is worthy of that gift, and that we don’t have to wait too many years to see it.

Production companies: A Why Not Productions presentation in association with Film4, BFI, Amazon Studios, Sixteen Films, JW Films
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Director/screenwriter: Lynne Ramsay, based on a novel by Jonathan Ames
Producers: Rosa Attab, Pascal Caucheteux, James Wilson, Lynne Ramsay 
Director of photography: Thomas Townend
Production designer: Tim Grimes
Costume designer: Malgosia Turzanska
Editor: Joe Bini
Music: Jonny Greenwood
Music supervisor: Fred Junqua
Casting: Billy Hopkins, Ashley Ingram
Sales: IMR
No rating, 95 minutes