You Were Never Really Here
The Myrna Loy
Through a master’s lens, a violent film can become blood poetry.
Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West” and any number of Kubrick films -- “Clockwork Orange,” “The Shining” -- turned blood into art. Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” and Coen Brothers “No Country for Old Men” are two more gruesome works of art.
I love the work of Zhang Yimou, including “House of Flying Daggers,” and, of course, I can never refuse an offer to watch “The Godfather.”
But directorial trips into darkness can backfire. I’m not a fan of much of the excesses of Quentin Tarantino, for example. And lots of horror films gratuitously splatter blood across the screen.
“You Were Never Really Here” is clearly applying for membership in the Blood Poets Society. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay sends a hitman with a ball point hammer on a mission to rid the world of men who prey on young children.
Ramsay painstakingly recounts the bloody killings, and adds some artful blood-spraying to accent the scenery.
At the center of most scenes is the tortured, sad face of Joaquin Phoenix, an actor whose own life has included more than one foray into dark places. Channeling his inner Javier Bardem, and looking like a mountain man walking through the city, Phoenix seeks out those who traffic young girls. He then beats them to a pulp -- artfully, of course.
Now I know those of us who love Indie cinema are supposed to nod knowingly and applaud the arrival of our latest metaphoric taxi driver with mental problems. As for me, I’ll pay the cancellation fee and seek out a cabbie whose eyes aren’t quite as menacing and who doesn’t have a hammer on the seat next to him.
To soften the brutality, Ramsay gives our hit fellow a beating heart. He lovingly takes care of his aging mother, and he weeps for the child victims he saves. Presumably, these compassionate scenes are designed to offset the full-throttle insanity of the killings.
When a potential client says that he’s heard that Phoenix might be ruthless and brutal, the contractor quietly nods and replies, “I can be.”
The client, whose daughter has been kidnapped by sex traffickers, then says: “I want you to hurt them.”
Phoenix then goes to the hardware store to pick out his new ball point hammer and places it in his small shopping basket next to the duct tape. A working man selects his tools.
Let’s cut to the broken bones: the performance by Phoenix is intense; the direction shows signs of brilliance, foreshadowing a future masterpiece; and the editing of a pounding score into jagged visuals is hypnotizing at times. (For the record, the cinematographer likes to shoot through moving train windows.)
The parts, in other words, were good enough -- but they don’t coalesce into an integrated whole. It’s not just the presence of graphic violence that derails this film, but rather the absence of a compelling narrative surrounding the violence. All we get is a dark, brooding Joaquin as a focus. One of the young girls he saves had the possibility of being a compassionate central character, but she earns very little screen time.
And, while I’m no cover-my-eyes prude, I did look away during many of the killings. Enough is enough, Lynne! There comes a point when your penchant for dark realism transforms into a gratuitous celebration of psychopathic violence. You’ve slipped across the line from artist to sadist at times. Crawl back, please.
For the most part, critics are applauding “You Were Never Really Here.” The writers focus on the acting and the craftsmanship, and dismiss the violence as it were simply a little too much hot sauce on an otherwise delicious dish.
No thank you. I’m sending the plate back to the kitchen and switching to chicken noodle soup just to let my taste buds recover.
With sincerest apologies to all the metaphors I’ve mercilessly mixed.