Update: I've watched this a lot since writing this and have come around. I love this film. Maybe I'll write about what changed my mind later.
We need to talk about YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE, writer-director Lynne Ramsay's new hammer starring the immaculate Joaquin Phoenix (INHERENT VICE). Based on Jonathan Ames' (BORED TO DEATH scribe) novella of the same name, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE follows PTSD-stricken Joe's (Phoenix) vigilante quest to take down suits trafficking underage girls and smashing them to death with a hammer. Or is it?
I don't watch trailers for two reasons: 1) They always give away too much and, 2) they can often be misleading. The latter is the curious case for YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Last May when the film premiered at Cannes, we were shown a clip from YOU WHERE NEVER REALLY HERE. It's two incredible tracking shots with an intoxicating score from Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood -- composer for PTA's masterpieces: THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER. The first moment, the camera floats down a motel hall and then cuts to a disheveled Phoenix walking out of the building -- fire alarm screaming -- into an alley. His beard is unkempt, his hoodie is up, covering his head, and while walking, he gets a surprise attack by some goon, only the goon is caught off guard when Phoenix headbutts him, knocking him to the ground, vomiting blood. It's the coolest clip I've seen in a long time and I was sold.
This scene is kickass, for lack of a better term, and I watched it a thousand times. Here it is -- you need to see it.
This scene is one of the best moments in a film, and that's all I needed to put this at the very top of my Must See list. In fact, I had made up my mind this was probably going to be my favorite movie of the year. But, to my disappointment, I was wrong. *sad emoji*
YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is not a terrible movie, but it's not the movie I thought it was going to or hoped it would be. It goes in one direction and then gets lost along the way. I don't want to spoil much, but there seems to be an underlying theme in the movie that's hard to pick up on if you're not paying attention (watch closely with his interactions with his mom). That or I don't understand what Ramsay is trying to show with the changes she made from the novella.
Lots of critics are calling this the contemporary TAXI DRIVER, and I can see that -- a man with apparent mental illness wanting to save an underage girl from scumbags.
But this doozy is quite different than that, and I'm still not entirely sure I understand the final act. So, what I did was buy the novella the film as based on, and read it before writing this review. Ramsay did a remarkable job capturing specific scenes in the book -- and even making some moments a hell of a lot cooler -- but the novella gives us a much better understanding of the story and why Joe (Phoenix) is the way he is, as well as how good he is at his job. I am a big advocate of separating the book from a film adaptation when it comes to watching and/or discussing, but I can't do that here, the film is too disoriented. (Sort of like INHERENT VICE, but PI novels are meant to be mysterious and confusing -- it keeps a reader on their toes. I don't consider YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE a PI novel but Joe is a hitman, and a good one at that.)
As Joe, Phoenix makes the movie worth the watch. He is a force to be reckoned with, and he keeps mopping the floor with each film he pumps out. His Joe has PTSD from his time as an FBI agent, and he makes it his life's mission to track down and murder every pedophile he can. He only needs two weapons to get the jobs done: a hammer and his rage. Judge, jury, executioner. Phoenix's Joe wears a stoic face throughout the film. You don’t know if he’s going to hug you or explode in a fit of rage and beat you to death with a hammer. This is what's makes YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE fascinating -- this unreliable narrator is fascinating to watch. We are not sure if Joe can be trusted.
The problem with the movie is the story skips important plot points and big scenes come and go quick. It's hard to keep up with exactly what's going on with all the people Joe meet, who they are, and why they are necessary for this story. And that third act, hoo boy -- I wish Ramsay went with the novella's ending, it's much more potent.
An important character in Joe's life is his mom. He lives with her and shares an endearing moment with her. This scene involves Hitchcock's PSYCHO that's not in the book -- a nice addition from Ramsay -- and this scene may or may not be a critical part of the movie. I am still not sure.
Phoenix won Best Actor at Cannes, and Ramsay took home Best Screenplay at the festival as well. Look, I want this movie to do well because Phoenix is so good in it and I like Ramsay (sans WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN, an incredibly frustrating movie). But I need to be honest; this movie lost me. Once the credits rolled, I'm not sure what YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is about at its core. There's life to this movie, but it dies rather quickly.