Dueling Reviews: You Were Never Really Here Hits Hard (Like a Hammer Might)

Brian Russell: The premise: a young girl taken and sold into sex slavery. A man — a former government operative with a unique set of skills — tracks her down, kills a bunch of bad guys, and saves her from a life trapped in the worst kind of servitude. On the surface, Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really There follows much the same plot as as the 2008 thriller Taken. But instead of Taken’s near-comic absurdity, Ramsay takes us on a gritty, hyper-real odyssey.

Just like I have never liked horror movies, I have also never liked entertainment that puts children in peril, especially not the kind that feels like it might be possible in real life. I hate shows like Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and almost didn’t watch 2015’s Room out of fear I would have nightmares. Only after many assurances that Room’s message and story offered hope and triumph, and not the lurid details of kidnapping and rape, did I watch.

I have three children. As they grew up, there came a time when I realized I could not really keep them safe from the challenges and terrors of world. This is a devastating, soul-crushing moment. Sadly, that feeling never really goes away. But at least I can help, right? Watch their backs? Point them in the right direction? But no — as they grow, they begin doing things on their own, and the nebulous illusion of any control whatsoever evaporates. And then they become actual grown-ups, and you understand you have now turned their care over to … themselves. As adults, my kids are in charge of their own safety and I get no say in the matter. But I still want to keep them safe. I still want to make a difference. When I see children on screen, I feel exactly the same way.

I really can’t tell you why I decided to see You Were Never Really There. I already went out of my comfort zone once this week, allowing the scares of A Quiet Place into my psyche. Perhaps my exploration of diverse film the past few years continues to push me to try new things. Instead of a steady diet of superhero, action and sci-fi fare, my journey into independant, naturalistic, classic film, and now horror and realistic thrillers feels like a necessary evolution.

Where Taken feels absurd and gratuitous and borderline — though certainly unintentionally — funny, Ramsay’s picture is real and so very painful. Joaquin Phoenix’s ex-military Joe looks like what I would expect in a real-world black-ops guy. His brutish form trudges across the screen with bulk and messiness and weariness. While he is powerful, sleek and fast are not words that describe him. Nightmares and visions from his time at war and as an abused child continuously disrupt his thinking and his life. His weapon of choice is a ball-peen hammer.

Joe is self employed as a rescuer of trafficked girls. But only those who can pay. A wayward senator wants his daughter back, and hires Joe to get her. Joe’s rescue comes swiftly, simply, and with deft and brutal use of his new hammer. This untethered man clearly operates to satisfy his demons (and for the money) and not out of a sense of right and wrong. This is never more clear than when he rescue’s the senators daughter, and leaves another young girl behind. I tell you all these details because while the setup sounds simple, the heart of this film is complex.

In the action-thriller version, we cheer for Liam Neeson to trounce the bad guys. In You Were Never Really Here, we still want the bad guys to get their due, but the real journey follows Joe on his unplanned path to redemption. Phoenix is always a great and committed actor, with range beyond most modern cinema stars. Commodus, Doc Sportello, and Her’s Theodore couldn’t be farther apart. Joe is two more steps removed from those characters. His Joe does whatever it takes to bring his charges home, and he’s not such a great guy himself, killing and maiming along the way as he pushes aside the horrors of his own past — events we see through hauntingly quick flashes of cinematographic memory.

Phoenix portrays a character completely lost and emotionally disconnected, no matter how many girls he saves. That is until he rescues a near catatonic Nina (played hauntingly by Ekaterina Samsonov.) The brutal mayhem that follows would normally put me into my own lost state. But Ramsay makes some brilliant choices. One particularly violent sequence plays entirely on black and white security camera footage, without the typically requisite sound effects. This decision allowed me to watch in horror, but spared me the bone-crunch and blood-spatters I would have to endure in typical rescue fare. It also created a reality and immediacy that would have been totally lost lost in the choreography and subsequent editing of another movie.

Usually Joe gets the child, returns her and collects his fee. But this case is different. Joe’s life becomes enmeshed with Nina’s, forcing him to confront his own brokenness. Forcing us to confront his brokenness. This film photographs Phoenix and Samsonov with painterly beauty, but not the kind that makes us feel good when we sit in a gallery and stare. More like seeing Peter Paul Rubens Massacre of the Innocents or Francis Bacon’s Painting.

Thomas Townend’s images drive us to the edge of these characters sanity. We the viewer are given a unique, and perhaps not entirely safe exploration of suffering. His imagery does among the very best jobs of illustrating suicidal ideation, creating suffering thematic windows into the minds of these characters. Can anyone come back from such horrors?

This almost-noir film offers a surprise ending, which I won’t spoil but I will say despite the desperation and violence, I think there may be some hope here. I give You Were Never Really There 9 wacks out of 10 skull-crushing hammer blows.

Chris Maher: Brian, I thought for sure we’d be in agreement about this film and I was dead wrong. While stylishly made and technically proficient I found myself just mostly… bored. I also immediately thought of Taken while watching this movie, both in plot and tone deafness to the cartoonish nature of the characters.

Basically what it comes down to for me is the writing. Phoenix is a fantastic actor, Greenwood a superb film score composer, and the film had some lovely shots, but if the story isn’t there… what’s it in service of? I honestly can’t tell you. The movie as a whole felt rather color by the numbers: violence is bad, trauma makes people desensitized, war is no good. Phoenix played Joe well but he remains rather archetypal – which is fine! Fury Road focuses on a mythic hero as well, and while both Max and Joe show growth, there’s a reason Fury Road was heralded by most as Furiosa’s movie. Leon the Professional, which this movie also adheres closely to, is another good example – if you’re going with a Max, Joe, or Leon, you need to plant the major emotional beats in either their foil or their relationship with that foil. Mathilda and Furiosa are complex characters with complex relationships to their archetypal heroes, but Nina doesn’t really evolve at all past a goal for Joe to pursue.

Overall, I found the tone of the movie dour but the story goofy and unsurprising – a total mismatch (some of the sillier elements I enjoyed when they were leaned into). I agree, the final fifteen minutes had a pretty nice twist that did some work redeeming the film, but still… technically pleasing, but if something broken on the base level it doesn’t matter how well you build the house. My favorite part of the movie was when they showed the Croton Harmon train station, because that’s my train station. I give this movie 4.5 rental cars out of 10 bloody shirts.

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