You Were Never Really Here (2017)

2019 #45
Lynne Ramsay | 90 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK, France & USA / English | 15 / R

You Were Never Really Here

Writer-director Lynne Ramsay tackled serious dramatic subjects in her previous features (none of which I’ve seen, I’m ashamed to say, so I apologise if my “this is a change of direction” intro is off base), but here shifts into genre mode to adapt Jonathan Ames’ noir-ish crime-thriller novella, albeit while retaining a good deal of the arthouse idiosyncrasy you’d expect.

The film follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a middle-aged-or-so guy who lives with is elderly ailing mother (Judith Roberts), and seems even more tired of life than she is, plagued by memories of things he’s witnessed. That history has given Joe a (as Liam Neeson would put it) very particular set of skills, which nowadays he puts to use for private clients, via multiple middle men, primarily (or wholly — the film doesn’t clarify) to rescue abducted children. But when he’s hired to rescue a US senator’s wayward teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), things end up going sideways in unforeseen ways.

Joe’s weapon of choice is a hammer. He uses it to take out multiple Very Bad Men in this film. But if the combination of “genre: thriller” and “using a hammer to take out bad men” makes you think You Were Never Really Here is about to unleash a low-budget action-fest upon your eyeballs, I refer you back to the writer-director being Lynne Ramsay and my mention of “arthouse idiosyncrasies”. I thought I’d mention this point upfront because I’ve seen others be disappointed by the lack of overt action in the film. Ramsay has instead chosen to keep most of the violence offscreen — we sometimes see the build-up or the aftermath, or both, or maybe neither, but only rarely the act itself. It’s not that kind of movie. And that’s not a problem, so long as you’re not expecting those kind of kicks.

Much to think about alone

Instead, the film becomes more of a character portrait, interrogating who Joe is and why. What kind of man does a job like that? What events in his life brought him here? What toll does it take on him? Or is there no toll because the damage has already been done? Explicitly writing these questions, which the film does seek to consider, causes me to question the worth of a serious-minded exploration of such a character’s psyche. It makes me wonder: are there real-life people like Joe? Does anyone actually do this job in the real world? Is the universe Joe moves in — a netherworld, parallel to our own but hiding from everyday view — a true one, or just the stuff that fills genre fiction? And if the answer to “is this real?” is a “no” — if these characters, situations, and environments are all just genre fodder — is there value in getting psychologically real about it?

Some would say “no”, because we don’t necessarily come to this kind of genre fiction for realism, even when it’s given a dark or gritty spin. I mean, take a slight genre sidestep into something like Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, for an example: they’re shot with a documentary-esque style, but no one thinks they’re plausible portraits of real life espionage activities. Stories like You Were Never Really Here have a greater reality claim than that, but I still question their actual adherence to our real world. But surely these extreme spins on reality are invented, at least in part, to justify simultaneously inventing heroes to put into them, who can then sort it all out by wielding some weaponry and special skills that we might not accept in a totally true-to-life story-world.

Much to think about together

Maybe I’m over-theorising this now. But You Were Never Really Here is the kind of movie that leaves gaps to invite you to think about it, to fill in your interpretations and personal notions. It’s a film with a lot of quiet space — literally, in the sense of its often minimal dialogue and, shorn of action scenes, little of the thudding and thumping you’d expect in the sound department; but also figuratively, with long scenes that make room for you to think about what you’re witnessing; scenes that don’t hand-feed you every piece of information, so you put it together yourself. (If you want an example: no one ever tells you where Joe got his skills, but flashbacks give you visual clues to put it together.) Maybe the film isn’t trying to say “guys like this exist outside of genre pieces, and they’re like this” — maybe it’s saying “if guys like this existed outside of genre pieces, what would they really be like?”

In the source novel, the title is explained via Joe’s methods: he uses fake identities, surgical gloves, and hides from cameras, all so that he was “never really there”. In the film he’s more low-tech and somewhat less scrupulous, meaning the same explanation doesn’t quite wash. I thought perhaps Ramsay meant it to have a new, arty meaning. Maybe it doesn’t — maybe it’s just the title of the book, so it stayed. Or maybe everything I’ve written is right, and people like Joe were never really here, in the real world… but if they were, they’d probably be like this.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of You Were Never Really Here is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

The Straight Story (1999)

2017 #133
David Lynch | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 2.35:1 | France, UK & USA / English | U / G

The Straight Story

“What would a G-rated Disney movie directed by David Lynch be like?” It sounds like a sketch show pitch, but in 1999, between Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, it happened for real.*

And, talking of “happening for real”, this is a true story about an old fella, Alvin (Richard Farnsworth), who decides to visit his estranged brother after he suffers a stroke. Unable to get a driving licence, he sets off on his 30-year-old ride-on lawnmower, with a maximum speed of 5mph, to make the 240-mile trip. Yes, I said it’s a true story. Of course, it’s not just 100 minutes of Alvin riding a lawnmower along county roads — through the people he meets and the stories he tells, we learn he’s certainly lived a whole life.

Such a simple, straightforward, grounded (well, relatively grounded) narrative seems so very un-Lynch-like at first, but its tale of quirky Americana, peopled by a ragtag selection of endearing oddballs, isn’t so far outside his wheelhouse. There’s a definite Lynch touch detectable in how its made — the shot choices, editing patterns, and so on. There’s even a shot of a grain silo with a background hum that feels straight out of Twin Peaks. Then there are pretty scenery shots which are less obviously him.

Lawnmower man

Lynch has called The Straight Story his “most experimental movie”, which, considering the rest of his oeuvre, probably says more about what he considers experimental than it does about the film itself. What it does demonstrate is that the director, normally known for producing movies that befuddle the mind and chill the blood, is capable of producing something understatedly human and kind of heartwarming.

4 out of 5

* In the US, anyway — other distributors released it elsewhere, including Film4 here in the UK. ^

My Top 5 Most-Read New Posts in 2016

…and why I think they made the cut.

5) Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Ultimate Edition
Reviews of alternate cuts always seem to do well for page hits, especially when they’re new releases.

4) The Last Dragonslayer
This had just been on TV, and in fact was repeated on the night I reviewed it; plus there were some retweets. Also, as a TV movie I’d guess it was less widely reviewed, so if you’re looking you’re more likely to find me.

3) Starman
Posted this when it was on Film4 and it got retweeted by their official Twitter account. Normally that’d be enough to get it #1, I think, but not this year.

2) The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again
Again, it was on TV the night I reviewed it. And, again, a TV movie… though there were quite a lot of reviews when it aired in the US. Advantage of being in the UK, then, maybe.

1) The Witches of Eastwick
No idea.

Be Our Guest

You may remember Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, when he looked like this:

Pudgy.

Pudgy.

Then he starred in The Guest, where he looks like this:

Phwoar.

Phwoar.

And this week saw the release of the first images from his new role, as the titular chap in Disney’s live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast, where he looks like this:

Phurry.

Phurry.

As if by design (but more likely by coincidence), the UK TV premiere of The Guest is tonight at 9pm on Film4. It was one of my favourite films I saw last year, so I heartily recommend it. Indeed, here’s a link to my full ★★★★★ review:

The Guest

Hyde Park on Hudson (2012)

2015 #148
Roger Michell | 90 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 12 / R

Wannabe-prestige picture Hyde Park on Hudson is like two films playing at once: the dramatic/romantic story of President FDR’s (Bill Murray) burgeoning affair with his distant cousin Daisy (Laura Linney), and the comedy-drama of his meeting with King George VI (aka “the one Colin Firth played in The King’s Speech”; here, Samuel West) and Queen Elizabeth 1.5 (Olivia Colman) in the build up to World War 2, at a time when America really didn’t want to get involved.

This internal battle between the two plots — and, consequently, the ways in which the film was promoted — seems to have caused some confusion with viewers. The trailer (or the British one, at least) sold it as being about the UK/US culture clash, a four-hander in which the British monarchs met FDR and… some woman. See how the British poster is a three shot of Murray, West and Colman, while the American one makes it all about Murray with Linney behind him (and they retained those images for the DVD and Blu-ray releases, too). Understandably, therefore, British viewers seem to expect a film about the UK/US meeting, and are surprised to find the visit is a poorly-integrated subplot to a tale of FDR’s philandering, while US viewers seem to expect a film about FDR having an affair with his cousin, and are surprised by how much time is spent on a poorly-integrated subplot about a British state visit.

For what it’s worth, the film was born of the discovery of Daisy’s letters and diaries, which told of the relationship. Apparently the screenwriter was one of the people who found these, so I guess that’s where his interest lies. The film is a UK production from Film4, however, and made in the wake of the global success of The King’s Speech, so perhaps that explains the root of the royal involvement. While both stories have some potential, they aren’t made to gel, switching back and forth as if in some kind of narrative relay that enables the film to run a theatrical distance.

The screenplay doesn’t help the cast, either. West and Colman are quality actors, but they’re not given good enough material to work with — they’re little more than the funny-Brits comic relief. Their performances seem pitched as a cheap Sunday afternoon TV movie, and are further hamstrung by the inevitable comparison to Colin Firth and Helena Bonham Carter’s award-winning portrayals of the same people just a couple of years earlier. With the material they’re given, West and Colman never stood a chance of matching that standard.

Elsewhere, Murray gives a good performance, though equally he’s never afforded a scene to really dig into his character, to display some of his inner life. Linney is landed with an over-explanatory voice over, and a character who’s three steps behind the viewer.

Roger Michell’s direction is adequate if unremarkable. DoP Lol Crawley provides a few spots of nice cinematography during any scene set in daylight, with vibrant colours evoking a place of sunny happiness, but anything set at night is graded with a terribly extreme, not to mention awfully rote, case of teal-and-orange.

While not strictly speaking a good film, Hyde Park on Hudson is passable as a Sunday-afternoon-style period drama (albeit one with an occasional risqué edge). One wonders if it could’ve been something more, somehow.

3 out of 5