You Were Never Really Here

I went to a movie today totally on the spur of the moment, had to leave five minutes after I looked up movie times. Often, that's the way to do things. It was You Were Never Really Here, playing at Milwaukee's Oriental Theatre, where sometimes I'll go, regardless of what's playing, just because I like the theater so much. I had heard nothing about this 2017 film, but when I looked it up on the theater website I saw that Joaquin Phoenix was in it, and he is without a doubt my favorite working actor, and I may go to any movie he's in, until further notice. Also, it said it was 89 minutes long, which to me, lately, is a huge plus. Does it mean I'm getting old that I let running time determine what movie I go to? Probably, but this wouldn't be nearly such an issue if movies longer than two hours regularly had intermissions. Do I sound like a broken record about intermissions? Get used to it! Anyway, this movie felt like a much longer story—I mean, in a good way—you get an incredible lot in that 89 minutes. By the end I felt like I'd binged an entire 10 episode TV season, actually.

I also noticed that the director was Lynne Ramsay, a familiar name, though I could remember nothing about her, but now that I'm back home, as much as I want to do no research in writing these reviews, I'll read something about her; she's from Scotland and has made several films, including one I've seen and liked quite a lot, Morvern Callar (2002). Her feature before this was called We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) which I probably heard of but skipped, probably because of and in spite of sounding like a 1970s horror movie with Martin Sheen and rats. This one is based on the novel, You Were Never Really Here by Jonathan Ames. I don't know what Lynne Ramsay's primary interests are, but it occurs to me that the story—a kind of taut political conspiracy thriller—is to some extent merely a palate for the pure film experience we end up with. Though there must be something about the novel; Jonathan Ames is a fascinating guy (I've heard him on podcasts). I liked his TV show, Bored to Death, and an autobiographical comic (someone else drew it) called The Alcoholic. Now, what's really weird is, seeing his name reminded me I had something on my kindle by him (which I have no recollection of buying)—so I just looked, and it's You Were Never Really Here! If the current wrinkle on gaslighting is to add books to my kindle, I'm not going to complain, and while you're at it, maybe add money to my bank account.

The movie could be marketed as an action thriller (if I'd seen the trailer first, I probably wouldn't have gone), which it is to some extent, but it's a mystery as well, and I love mysteries as much as I don't like extreme and disturbing violence. So in this case, I was so caught up in the story, the character, and the filmmaking, that I was able to tolerate the nightmarish violent stuff, which was extreme, but far from gratuitous, I thought. Also, it's another portrait film to some extent, and we very much inhabit the main character, Joe, (Joaquin Phoenix)—sometimes even seeing through is eyes—while we try to make sense of the flashbacks we seem to be experiencing together. I don't like flashbacks in movies; I recall making a “Cinema Manifesto” at some point, one of whose rules was: No Flashbacks. They work as well in this movie as any I can think of, though, because they're woven in with the fragmented style of the present narrative, so we're able to empathize with our protagonist—what it's like trying to function while images of horror fill your consciousness. I guess it's a depiction of PTSD we've seen a lot in movies—and in a way I don't have a need to see this guy's mind illustrated—but the way it works together here, as a portrait, along with the thriller narrative—but told in a visceral, sensuous filmic style—is what makes it a special experience. I guess the closest comparison that comes to mind is some of Michael Haneke's stuff—and there are others—but no need to start unearthing comparisons while this movie is still a living and breathing thing—at the theater.

I was just thinking about the differences of watching something at home vs the theater—there's all the obvious ones—but for me the biggest difference is sound. If you're lucky, you have a great sound system to go with your big screen, and then either thick walls or no neighbors, and you watch movies at a volume level where you can hear the whispering and mumbling of an actor like Joaquin Phoenix, and then get blasted out of your seat by the unexpected intrusions, explosions of violence, and incursions of diegetic and score music, like in this movie. But me, at home, I'm the worst: small screen, and I'm self-conscious about my neighbors having to hear the moaning of a man suffering from a gunshot wound. I typically have my subtitling activated all the time. I'll stop a movie countless times to worship my smartphone, find a book, prepare a meal, go back to get the salt, pee, and end the day—sometimes I don't get back to the exciting conclusion for weeks. You're never going to have a cinematic acid trip that way. This is one of those movies, when I left, all my senses were heightened—just walking down the sinister hallway in the Oriental to the men's room felt like an adventure. Of course it wears off pretty fast, but at least it's a drug with no physiological hangover, and I'd go so far as to say it's cleansing.

I feel like my attempts to try to describe what Lynne Ramsay has done as a filmmaker are going to fail, plus, I don't know how many people I know personally (or who might read this) have seen this movie, so this is a case where I'm just going to encourage you to see the movie—at the theater. (Or if at home, eventually, try to go the extra mile and recreate the theater experience, for this one.) As much as I was caught up in the suspense story (it's about a guy who does very dangerous work for hire), I was aware (but not too much) that I was enveloped in a symphony of heightened sound and evocative images. You just don't hear filmmakers using sound like this. There are also some interesting songs that fall within scenes (I think, none of which I knew, which is a plus!) and a great score. I only saw in the credits that it was Jonny Greenwood, who I think is doing the best score music of anyone lately—but also nice, the score didn't jump out and say Jonny Greenwood score, as with some composers. The imagery is often mundane stuff (some too mundane to ever even be seen in a movie) that all takes on a freshness and amplified significance because of context. I felt like getting up and addressing the sparse, noontime crowd and yelling, “People, this is filmmaking!” But I don't do that kind of stuff in public. I'm doing it now.

Randy Russell 5.1.18