*. I’d read the Jonathan Ames novella You Were Never Really Here and so was looking forward to this one, especially given its critical reception. However, perhaps it’s because I had read the source material that I came away disappointed.
*. I liked the book, and director Lynne Ramsay starts off being faithful to its spare story of a depressed special operative. Ex-marine, ex-FBI, “Joe” is a violence machine whose specialty is retrieving girls who have been kidnapped and forced into prostitution. While I’m sure this sometimes happens, that there would be enough such work for Joe to support himself doing these kinds of jobs I took to be a bit of fantasy. I didn’t get the sense that Ames meant us to take it all too seriously, what with the stale business about the senator’s daughter and the infiltration of the big house at the end playing like a modern-day Chandler scenario.
*. What Ramsay does is make the story even sillier or more fantasy-like while at the same time taking it more seriously. Though I have to qualify that final judgment a bit. When Joe holds hands with the dying gangster and sings along with him on the floor (something not in the book) I’m sure it’s a joke. But the rest of it?
*. To take the most obvious difference, and one that relates to this question of how to read the movie, let’s look at the end. At the end of the book Votto is revealed to have sold his own daughter (named Lisa) out to the sadistic mob boss Novelli. Joe kills Votto, and is off to hunt down Novelli and Lisa at the end.
*. The movie throws this all to the wind in order to give us an absurd happy ending. Nina (the Lisa character) is now empowered, and kills her abductor herself by slitting his throat. Her father, meanwhile, is less culpable and kills himself. Joe arrives at the big house (the governor’s mansion now), but he no longer has anything to do so he just tears his shirt off and cries a bit before leaving with Nina.
*. You’ll recognize the resemblance to Taxi Driver, with the damaged anti-hero rescuing a waif from the clutches of prostitution. As announced in a pull quote stuck on the DVD box cover, this is “the Taxi Driver for a new century.” I wonder what century that would be. In Taxi Driver there’s no suggestion even for a minute that Travis and Iris are going to ride off together into the sunset. Does the dialogue and music at the end of this film indicate an ironic reading? Sure. But the fact remains that Joe rescues the girl (child model Ekaterina Samsonov) and they’re a couple now, an ending that forty years earlier would have been laughed at as ridiculous. Maybe you can get away with a thinly-disguised pedo-fantasy plot like this in France (think Léon: The Professional, and the standing ovation that this movie got at Cannes), or in a generic movie like The Equalizer (where I made the same observation with regard to the Taxi Driver resemblance), but not here.
*. And yet despite this sentimental transformation of an old story, You Were Never Really Here was praised for its gritty realism and toughness. I’m lost as to where this is coming from. I’ve nothing against Ramsay’s sense of style, but the choppy editing and discordant music (courtesy of the overrated Johnny Greenwood) don’t contribute to a vision of New York City that’s any grittier than that of Scorsese or Cassavetes. Indeed, it’s much less so. And the action sequences are presented as self-conscious set pieces, like the assault on the brothel done through security camera footage (which isn’t as clever as I think it wants us to think it is). You just feel scenes like this are meant to be admired without feeling their physicality.
*. Meanwhile, the border between reality and fantasy is always threatening to dissolve, as when Joe dumps his mother’s body in the lake. It’s very lyrically rendered, and when he goes underwater with her it isn’t at all realistic. Nor is it meant to be. We’ve gone over into fantasyland (where can that single column of light be coming from?). In the book, by the way, he chucks her body off the Palisades into the Hudson (“It was the most beautiful funeral he could think to give her.”).
*. That difference between book and movie — the latter being a sanitized version of the former — is an old one. Mad Magazine parodied it back in the 1970s (a source I’ve had occasion to mention before). More recently, however, the gap has been closing. That it is made wider in this movie is something I have a hard time explaining.
*. Perhaps Ramsay was just a little too much in love with her movie precedents for this story. She saw Taxi Driver in it, so she made it more like Taxi Driver. She introduces a bunch of stuff between Joe and his mother that invokes Psycho (“Mother! Look at what you did to the bathroom!”) but for no good reason that I can see. Such joking seems out of character for Joe.
*. Years ago the critic Leslie Halliwell complained of the arrogance of Stanley Kubrick in leaving any explanation of where the title of A Clockwork Orange came from out of his adaptation of the novel. Ramsay is guilty on the same count here. In the book the words “You were never really here” are spoken by an inner voice, or it might be Death, and addressed to Joe, mocking the emptiness of his existence. He could kill himself but so what? He’s hardly alive as it is anyway.
*. Admittedly, it would have been hard to work an explanation of this into the script. But not impossible. Perhaps it might have been something his mother would say to Joe, or that he would imagine her saying to him. As it is, Joaquin Phoenix is good here (though looking terrible as a fat guy), but his personal demons are so generic (childhood abuse, workplace trauma) that it’s hard to feel all that connected to him. Add in the generic nature of the plot and you have a story that basically only exists as an exercise in style. This it has, but not enough to make me think it was anything special.