YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2018)

April 12, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t shy away from tough material. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. Following the emotional turmoil of WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011) she delivers her latest, which can best be described as brutal. The brutality here is not the on screen violence – we get mostly the aftermath or only see the ‘edges’ of terrible deeds. No, the brutality here is in a world that needs a man like Joe.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a former military man who lives with his mother. Joe has a particular set of skills that fit into the narrow career niche of rescuing kidnapped girls and ridding society of their captors. Rather than a hired gun, Joe is a hired hammer … ball-peen hammer being his sentimental and strategic weapon of choice. Joe is also a bit mentally unstable, likely suicidal, and haunted by inner demons. Yet he is also patient and kind with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts).

Joe’s most recent job is to find and rescue a State Senator’s daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) from an underground sex ring run by some powerful political types. The job is a success right up until it isn’t. It’s at this point when Joe finds a reason to live … vengeance. It’s also when Mr. Phoenix becomes a legitimate contender for an Oscar nomination. He’s a hulk of a man with a lumbering gait experiences and dozens of body scars. He has these flashbacks which are so short spurts, at times they feel like mere teases. Soon enough we assemble the pieces to know the baggage from a traumatic childhood event, and the front lines of a horrific war, have created this shell of a man with his own set of principles.

John Doman and Alessandro Nivola have minor supporting roles, but this one rides on the battered and no longer symmetrical shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix, and the creative stylings of filmmaker Lynne Ramsay. It is imagery combined with performance and the result is spellbinding. If you can handle it, the film provides a cinematic journey to depths not typically reached.

Best not to fill in many of the film’s specifics, but the comparisons to TAXI DRIVER are apropos. I found myself wondering if Paul Schrader was consulted in the adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ source material book. The city streets and dank hotel rooms scream gritty 1970’s thriller, and the recurring shots of plastic bags over the head emphasize the claustrophobia Joe experiences. This is doubtless meant to be commentary on politicians and the corrupt power they wield, but it works less as that and more as a glimpse at one man’s darkness. Add to that the pulsating score from Jonny Greenwood, and the creepy use of “My Angel Baby” by Rosie and Originals, and only one word can describe Ms. Ramsay’s film … brutal.

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WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

March 4, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. The Brady Bunch, this isn’t. It’s also not the place to look for helpful parenting tips. In fact, the story revolves around Eva, a woman (Tilda Swinton) who apparently didn’t want to have a child … at least not at this time, and certainly not THIS child. If you have seen The Omen, you probably gave thanks that you didn’t have a child like Damien. At least we knew Damien was the spawn of Satan. Eva’s son Kevin, is instead a good old fashioned psychopath. One who has an inherent need to cause pain and misery for his mother.

What a pair Eva and Kevin make. From day one, Kevin seems to sense his mother’s lack of joy in parenthood. And he seems to have a genetic disposition of making her pay. As with many psychopaths, his above average intelligence makes him all the more dangerous. He is tricky enough to keep his dad (John C Riley) clueless as to his nature, while causing much doubt in the dad’s mind as to the stability of his wife.

 My favorite part is actually how director Lynne Ramsay structured the storytelling. It goes beyond non-linear and actually bounces throughout three key periods: Kevin as a baby/toddler, Kevin as a 6-8 year old (Jason Newell), and Kevin as a teenager (Ezra Miller). Each age is progressively more frightening and disenchanting … and all of the “Kevin” actors glare with the same lifeless eyes. The film begins with what is an undetermined catastrophe. This event is slowly revealed over the course of the movie, though we witness events leading up to it, as well as the resulting fallout.

 There are recurring scenes where Eva is scrubbing the exterior of her house in an attempt to remove the red paint that was purposefully splattered. As a viewer, we understand that she has blood on her hands and she seems resigned to the fact that she is now a social outcast, even a pariah. We spend much of the movie in Eva’s jumbled thoughts as she tries to piece together what has happened and why. Of course, there is no simple answer. The title explains what was missing all along. There was no communication and no willingness to confront the problem … a psychopathic son born to a disenchanted woman who refuses to get past her lost dreams. To say they all paid the price is an understatement.

This film has a very limited audience, though my claim is that Ms. Swinton was quite deserving of an Oscar nomination. She wears defeat like a mask and lives in isolation better than most could. Even the music is offbeat and unusual in its use … thanks to Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. As filmmaking, this is high art. As storytelling, it’s a bit muddled and quite a downer.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to feel better about the kids you are raising

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for helpful parenting tips

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