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You Were Never Really Here

“Though a man be a slave, he is the same flesh as thyself; for no one has ever been born a slave by nature; but fortune subjected his body to servitude”     

The dark, brooding 90-minute intermission that looks to ride the wave of momentary brilliance was supposed to be a confirmed addition to our best films of 2018. And yet, somehow, Lynne Ramsay does just enough to keep herself out by delivering an aimless project with a mumbling array of characters that do about as much as the plot does to weave together a three-dimensional film.

You Were Never Really Here (“YWNRH”) tells the story of hit man suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder—a survivor of war and child abuse—who specializes in delivering young women from evil using rudimentary Home Depot weaponry and blanket animosity. As A.O. Scott writes: “[t]he title gestures toward emptiness and absence . . . but what  [it] delivers is less the promised dose of existential alienation than a thematic void.” When the events in the film suddenly escalate, it does so without laying out a foundation for the characters or sufficiently developing the background for the story to make the audience truly care. Ramsay wasn’t going to bore herself with such tedious storytelling so instead she stumbles into the genre using gimmicks and cheesy lines (e.g. “I hear you can be brutal”) in hopes her few brilliant moments and the loudness of Jonny Greenwood’s installments would distract the audience from the aimless and overall underwhelming quality of the film. Mick LaSalle (San Francisco Chronicle) summarizes the essence of the problem better than most:

There are just some filmmakers who, when presented a haystack of exciting, will find that lonely needle of dull. Adapting the screenplay herself, Ramsay makes the story ponderous and mysterious. In a case of trying to run before knowing how to walk, Ramsay tries to make a different kind of action movie without bothering to master the rudiments of the form. The result is like any other Lynne Ramsay movie, whether it’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin” or “Ratcatcher” — slow, soporific and, here and there, wonderful.

As a director, Ramsay remains unsteady, but improving—and yet, already celebrated by some, as if she has already arrived at the table of proven directors like Steven McQueen, who runs circles around Ramsay when it comes to tapping into the darkness of humanity. Like Martin Scorsese with Daniel Day Lewis in the Age of Innocence, Ramsay largely wastes the talents of Joaquin Phoenix in a strangely reminiscent rendition of the aptly titled I’m Still Here. Like Affleck’s pretend documentary, it wasn’t so much the acting in YWNRH that works to some degree, but Phoenix’s sheer physical display of self-destruction that remains with you after the film. I can’t tell if it’s Paul Thomas Anderson who brings out the best in Joaquin, but I can assure you that Ramsay’s Phoenix remained dead in its ashes.

These things were of course wasted on critics like Barry Hertz (Globe and Mail), who embarrassingly gave the film a PERFECT score or Sheila O’Malley (Roger Ebert), who likewise gave the film a perfect score while in the process destroying her credibility by comparing Phoenix in The Master to some-distant shadow of Phoenix in Inherent Vice. 

Let’s all stop pretending that this is the best she can do. Ramsay’s masterpiece remains to be made. I look forward to her next film and hope we won’t have to wait so long.


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