****/**** Image B+ Sound A
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Judith Roberts, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola
screenplay by Lynne Ramsay, based on the book by Jonathan Ames
directed by Lynne Ramsay
by Walter Chaw It opens with a child's voice saying that he must do better. It's dark. The first image is of a man trying to breathe inside a plastic bag. This is your everyday Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), and this is how director Lynne Ramsay lets us know that he's disturbed. We know he's dangerous, too, because she shows him cleaning the head of a ball-peen hammer and flushing bloody towels down a hotel-room toilet in a visceral call-back to the nightmare's resolution in The Conversation. All of You Were Never Really Here is a nightmare: a vision of the United States presented by a foreign artist who sees America in the truest way since Wim Wenders's pictures about violence, Edward Hopper (whom Ramsey uses as a touchstone, too), and the state of the American dream state. When she evokes "Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1" (a.k.a. Whistler's Mother), capturing Joe's mother (Judith Roberts) in profile through a window as her son goes to collect some bounty, it's sad in the ineffable way that great art can be in just a pass, a glance. Ramsey's picture is about the toll of violence on the violator and the victim in equal measure. In moments, she recreates Michael Mann's urban veneers--nowhere more so than during the title sequence, whose soundtrack evokes not only that halcyon period in the '80s when Tangerine Dream seemed to be scoring all the best movies, but also the band specifically in how their best scores were about the repetitive urgency of work. Jonny Greenwood's music for You Were Never Really Here provides subtext, texture, and emotional geography. It reminds of Jon Brion's work on Punch-Drunk Love. In a lot of ways, that PT Anderson film, in its discussion of a disturbed and volatile young man finding purpose and acceptance, is this picture's closest analogue.
Anyway, Joe. Joe breathes, or doesn't breathe, with a plastic bag over his head whenever things are hard. Flashes of his childhood show that things started getting hard a long time ago. We understand that something's happened more recently, too, in a desert somewhere. The parade of current events makes it hard to pin down the particular atrocity in our forever wars, but maybe that's the idea. Joe has a lovely relationship with his demented mother. They sing together, talk about movies. I love the scenes where he's loose in the world and people act normally towards him, because we know that he's not okay. Not even a little bit. A group of Asian girls asks him to take a picture of them, and through the lens their smiles turn into screams. "What the hell am I doing here?" he asks in a voiceover that isn't a voiceover, just another sound sample in Greenwood's score, and we know something more about Joe. You Were Never Really Here is about the arc of dissociative illnesses in a world that's doing its level best to match that arc of madness in some perfect circle of arbitrary disease. It's Travis Bickle's infernal vision of New York, taken root and spread like stretch marks across a brutalized patch of skin. It's a mad person in a madhouse. Soldier Joe gives a candy bar to a little kid in the desert and another little kid shoots the first little kid for it. This is the way the world turns: it's not the cold irony of war, it's the brutal absurdism of a Brecht play, turned all the way up and on all the fucking time. Ramsey's film is about how there are no lines to cross anymore. It's prescient in that way, though it's too late to do anything about it.
I used to listen to the oldies station on a portable cassette player I bought with lawn-mowing money when I was fourteen. I recorded songs, countdowns, and Dr. Demento every week. After everyone was asleep, I would listen to Rosie and the Originals' terrible "Angel Baby" on a loop and wonder if anyone would ever love me. You Were Never Really Here uses this song to underscore Joe infiltrating a makeshift brothel packed with underage girls. Joe's job is apparently to rescue these girls. This job is for a Senator Votto (Alex Manette), who wants Joe to make his daughter's captors suffer. Joe reads this as an invitation to go shopping for a ball-peen hammer. If you've heard the song, you know that it's maudlin, poorly-produced, tinny now with age and forgetfulness. It works as an impossible, uncanny counterpoint to Joe's liberation of young Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov)--young Nina, who counts down, and stares, and quietly watches news reports of her father's suicide that same evening. Joe tries to comfort her a few times during their time together, and it's awkward and empty each time. There's no succour, no safety. There's no rule of law in this world, and Ramsay illustrates this with rogue policemen who steal Nina back. "I don't know what the fuck's going on," Joe says. This is Phoenix's third role, after Inherent Vice and Irrational Man, in which he engages in an existential mystery story with no resolution nor any possibility of resolution. A moment at exactly the middle of the film has Joe performing dental surgery on himself in an alleyway, a black stray as his companion. It's the intrusion of the absurd into the familiar. It's the literal definition of uncanny.
You Were Never Really Here pairs brilliantly with Ramsay's own Morvern Callar in that they clarify a theme in her art that there is no meaning to existence, just the meaningless shit in which you become mired and the moments of unexpected grace that allow you to persist. Joe is born into madness and is mad. Being momentarily vital to his mother and later Nina allows him to continue. That's all. The rest is nightmare country. The United States is corrupt and failing. The family is destroyed. Politics are thinly-disguised organized graft. Religion is an opiate and the foundation for cults. The things that define order for us are too used and corrupt to so much as pretend to hold moral or spiritual authority. It may as well be end days, since there's nothing left to defend. Joe is as cogent an avatar for this era as Elliot Gould's Philip Marlowe was for 1973: they're both adrift in their respective zeitgeists, ripped across the currents, left on the floor with his mother's dying killer singing Charlen's "I've Never Been to Me" because that's what Joe used to do with his mom. It's what passes for connection in a bad dream. Ramsay is a rare and brilliant filmmaker. Nothing feels "right" in You Were Never Really Here. It's hard to know where one scene ends and the next begins, and yet the picture still has the feeling of a familiar narrative. It gets to where you think it's going, but it takes no roads you recognize. There's a baptismal scene underwater that evokes Virginia Woolf's suicide and her attendant note, which said, among other things, "I feel certain that I am going mad again." Ramsay rolls out "Angel Baby" again for the climax and reveals, in a devastating way, that Joe is too late and that that's both fine and not fine. It is as fine and inexplicable, as nihilistic and doom-laden, as "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown." You Were Never Really Here has the economy and grotesquerie of a Flannery O'Connor short story. I can't think of anything better I could say about it.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers DP Tom Townend shot You Were Never Really Here with the ARRI Alexa and makes no obvious effort to disguise this, although the anamorphic lensing and generally diffuse blacks downplay the digital qualities of the image. Lionsgate's 2.39:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation is sleek enough but hamstrung, I think, by the decision to pack the film onto a single-layer BD-25. You Were Never Really Here is only 90 minutes long and the bitrate averages a respectable 25 Mbps, yet there are telltale signs--banding artifacts that recur throughout, for instance, as well as some suspiciously flat shadows--that the movie's been overcompressed. (I wondered if this also exacerbated the brief patches of video noise.) Even just maxing out the available disc space would help: the film's 16.6 GB file size seems ungenerous, considering there's no supplementary material demanding a piece of the pie apart from the usual startup ephemera. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track adeptly reproduces a sound design that favours tone over literalism. Music makes a surprisingly substantial showing in the surround channels, and while the dialogue is purposefully quiet, it's never out of balance with the rest of the mix. I enjoy that Lionsgate releases continue to open with a DTS logo, which not only provides a simulacrum of the theatrical experience but also gives you a moment to optimize the volume. HiDef trailers for Last Flag Flying, (Not Pink Floyd's) The Wall, and Manchester by the Sea cue up before the feature. A digital copy of You Were Never Really Here is included in the keepcase.