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.

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Gladiator (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #38

The general who became a slave.
The slave who became a gladiator.
The gladiator who defied an empire.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 155 minutes | 171 minutes (extended edition)
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th May 2000 (Australia)
US Release: 5th May 2000
UK Release: 12th May 2000
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Russell Crowe (L.A. Confidential, A Beautiful Mind)
Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line, Her)
Connie Nielsen (The Devil’s Advocate, One Hour Photo)
Oliver Reed (Women in Love, The Three Musketeers)
Richard Harris (This Sporting Life, Unforgiven)

Director
Ridley Scott (Kingdom of Heaven, Exodus: Gods and Kings)

Screenwriters
David Franzoni (Amistad, King Arthur)
John Logan (The Aviator, Skyfall)
William Nicolson (Shadowlands, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom)

Story by
David Franzoni (Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Citizen Cohn)

The Story
Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believes his son and heir, Commodus, is unfit to rule, so plans to appoint victorious General Maximus Decimus Meridius as regent. Before he can, Commodus murders Marcus and orders Maximus’ execution. Maximus escapes, but returns home to find Commodus has had his wife and son murdered. Captured by slavers, Maximus becomes a gladiator, and when Commodus announces gladiatorial games to commemorate his father, he spots a chance for revenge…

Our Hero
Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the old emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife, becomes a gladiator, will have his vengeance against the new emperor, in this life or the next.

Our Villain
Said new emperor, Commodus. Murders his father because Marcus favours Maximus. Fancies his sister. That kinda guy.

Best Supporting Character
Even if his performance is partially computer generated (more on that later), Oliver Reed still stands out as Proximo, the slave owner who buys Maximus and turns him into a gladiator. For a fella who does that kind of thing, he turns out to be very honourable.

Memorable Quote
“My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions and loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor Marcus Aurelius; father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife.

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?” — Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the— yeah, you know the rest.

Memorable Scene
After Maximus secures a surprise victory in the Colosseum, Commodus enters the arena to congratulate the victor. Maximus reveals himself (cue famous speech), but holds back on his plan to murder the Emperor. As the Praetorian Guard prepare to execute Maximus, the crowd chant: “live!” Not prepared to risk unpopularity, Commodus spares him… for now.

Truly Special Effect
Oliver Reed died halfway through filming, with his key supporting role only partially complete. Famously, his performance was completed with computers, one of the first times such a thing had been done. Effects company The Mill created the additional footage by filming a body double and then mapping on a computer-generated mask of Reed’s face. The work totalled two minutes of screentime, at an estimated cost of $3.2 million.

Making of
When the HBO/BBC TV series Rome started, I read an interview with the programme’s historical advisor, who’d performed the same role for Gladiator. Asked to compare the experience of working on a major Hollywood movie versus a BBC-produced TV series, she cited the way the makers asked for information about something they wanted to include: on TV they’d ask, “did this exist?”; on Gladiator they’d say, “find us proof this existed.”

Next time…
A prequel or sequel was discussed ever since the film was a hit. The best/worst idea came from a re-write by Nick Cave (yes, that one) in which Maximus was “reincarnated by the Roman gods and returned to Rome to defend Christians against persecution; then transported to other important periods in history, including World War II, the Vietnam War, and finally being a general in the modern-day Pentagon.” As awesome as that sounds, it was rejected for “being too far-fetched, and not in keeping with the spirit and theme of the original”. Spoilsports.

Awards
5 Oscars (Picture, Actor (Russell Crowe), Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
7 Oscar nominations (Supporting Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Score, Art Direction-Set Decoration)
5 BAFTAs (Film, Cinematography, Production Design, Editing, Audience Award)
10 BAFTA nominations (Actor (Russell Crowe), Supporting Actor (both Joaquin Phoenix and Oliver Reed), Director, Original Screenplay, Music, Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Awards (Best Fight, Best Work with an Animal)
1 MTV Movie Award (Best Movie)
5 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Best Line from a Movie for “It vexes me, I am terribly vexed!”)

What the Critics Said
“There isn’t much difference between the crowds cheering Maximus and fans of modern mayhem entertainment. Money is the root of all violent exploitation then and now. One of Maximus’ endearing qualities is the way he resents the attention. It’s insane to view these fights as fun. We like him enough to agree, then realize we’re gawkers, too. Scott plays cagey with this paradox, as if to say: If you want to be a ghoul, do it right. Mano a mano, with much more than profit in the balance. Viewers shouldn’t feel guilty watching Gladiator, but its impatience with trash-sports showmanship is unmistakable.” — Steve Persall, St. Petersburg Times

Score: 76%

What the Public Say
“As far as elements of technical filmmaking go, Gladiator is nothing short of a marvel. Production design team does a magnificent job in putting up set pieces that are grand, imposing & meticulously refined with the real standout being the Colosseum itself which is undeniably a sight to behold. The culture, politics & life within the Roman Empire is illustrated in splendid detail. Costumes, artefacts & other props are in sync with the timeline its story is set in but it also incorporates a slightly urban touch to it that brings a flavour of its own into the picture and enhances the look & feel of the whole imagery.” — CinemaClown @ Letterboxd

Verdict

Gladiator’s influence is plain to see: it was hailed at the time for reviving the classic swords-and-sandals epic — and indeed it did, because in its wake we’ve had so many that my original plan to list them here became untenable. The ‘original’ is still the best, though, thanks to director Ridley Scott’s feel for the epic, Russell Crowe’s strong hero, Joaquin Phoenix’s slimily unstable villain, and a mix of a straight revenge tale with familial/political plotting and the importance of public relations, thumping action sequences, and groundbreaking special effects.

#39 will make you… an offer you can’t refuse.

Inherent Vice (2014)

2015 #113
Paul Thomas Anderson | 149 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Paul Thomas Anderson — the fêted writer-director of Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master, et al — here turns his hand to adapting reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 opus. It met with notably less success than most of his previous works. The Alliance of Women Film Journalists were one of few organisations to recognise it come awards season, with a gong for “Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t”. Apt.

The story — not that the story is the point, as aficionados of Anderson and/or Pynchon will happily tell you — sees stoner PI Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) receive a visit from an ex girlfriend (Katherine Waterston), who’s been having an affair with a real estate developer whose wife now intends to have him committed so she can inherit his estate. It only spirals from there, and I’m not even going to begin to get into all the different directions it shoots off into.

Really, the plot is a deliberate mess — it’s not the point, remember — but even allowing for that, it’s messy. How things are connected to one another is regularly unclear, subplots seem to take over for no apparent reason, and if there was a point to it all, it completely passed me by. Maybe I’m being cynical, but I get the impression it also sailed past those who would claim there was some point, as they scrabble around to justify one. Moments of amusement or filmic craftsmanship do shine out, but only occasionally. Chief among these is Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s understatedly wonderful, reminding you how great proper film stock can look, especially in HD. Digital photography has its benefits, but golly there’s something to be said for film.

Anderson chooses to realise the movie mostly in long, unbroken takes, which not only lets the photography shine, but also allows his cast free rein to construct their own performances. I’m not sure how much that pays off, but it’s certainly not a hindrance. Turns from the likes of Josh Brolin and Martin Short border on the memorable, though your mileage will vary on if anyone truly achieves it, with the possible exception of Katherine Waterston, who surely deserves more — and more prominent — roles. Other recognisable faces (Jena Malone, Eric Roberts, Reese Witherspoon) are wasted in one- or two-scene appearances, which I suppose we could kindly call cameos.

For a certain kind of viewer, Inherent Vice will be nirvana. Or possibly for two kinds of viewers. One: stoners, who can identify with the main character, and find the majority of life just as bewildering as this film’s plot. You don’t have to go far on the internet before you find, “dude, it’s a totally great movie to watch stoned, dude”-type comments. Two: some Anderson and Pynchon fans (though by no means all), as well as similar cinéastes, who I’m sure can find something in there because it’s by an acclaimed auteur so it must be worth re-watching multiple times, and if you re-watch anything enough you can find some deeper meaning to it.

I am in neither of those groups, however. The aforementioned fleeting aspects of quality weren’t enough to swing it for me either. Sadly, I’ll be chalking this up alongside Killing Them Softly and Seven Psychopaths as “neo-noirs from previously-excellent directors that seriously disappointed me this year”.

3 out of 5