Lynne Ramsay’s latest feature is nasty, brutish, and short. Is that a good thing? In a world of cinema so desensitised by gratuitous violence, sexual deviancy and general nastiness, it’s hard to tell anymore.
Joaquin Phoenix plays, with his usual withdrawn performative mastery, a PTSD-suffering hitman hired to recover the daughter of a politician (Ekaterina Samsonov) who has been dragged into a child sex-trafficking ring. Having rescued her, it becomes clear that everything is not as it seems, and unknown to him, the hitman’s real purpose was something else entirely.
The film at first uncoils narratively along the lines of Alice in the Cities, albeit complete with distorted scenes of horrific murder and uncomfortable flashbacks of childhood trauma. Soon it twists nauseatingly, incorporating these images of the past into an intensely stylised and fragmented storyline. The danger for a film treading in such territory is the old ‘all style no content’ trap, which I believe Ramsey’s sidesteps, perhaps a little messily. Certainly this is not l’art pour l’art, relishing in shock-factor and accusations of controversy; the film is far too self-aware to let its audience be so gullible. In fact, the film goes quite the opposite direction, becoming instead a conte morale lacking in morality, acknowledging only the futility of morality itself, objective or subjective. How very postmodern. In one scene, a character shoots themself in the head in a busy diner. The bystanders at the nearby table and counter continue their conversations, audible and uninteresting. The waitress even leaves the bill beside the bullet-bored head. Is this reality? No, although maybe it’s a little on the nose.
Reality is the last thing that anyone watching this film should concern themselves with, at least in terms of narrative. The plot presents such a conventionally accepted set of conspiratorial events that a synopsis can only really iterate a triviality that I feel this film shrugs off, and fairly successfully. You Were Never Really Here acts likes a collage, touching on Scorsese, Lynch, Wenders etc., but never lingering on their work long enough to become full-blown pastiche. Amidst this referential eclecticism the audience is forced to look deeper into the film than the familiarly superficial. The extreme situations the characters find themselves in may at first appear to comment on social conditions, but ultimately the film detaches itself from this through its very extremity. The systematic cruelty witnessed is so unconceivably personalised that it is impossible to reconcile with any journalistic reading. However, neither is it a regurgitated and vacuous façade: there is something of value to be taken away. Unfortunately, what this is was hard to pinpoint.
To me, it would equally be an error to focus on character. Even the most cursory glance at mainstream criticism of this film demonstrates the extent to which Phoenix’s character has the potential to be obsessed over. But really, this is an illusion. He crushes a green jelly bean between two fingers, having stated that the green ones are his favourite. We are presented with a dramatic extreme close-up of the skin of the jelly bean splitting open, of the sweet spilling forth into the world under the pressure that this man is exerting. All Sound and Fury. There is no originality to this mentally unstable murderer on an apparent moral crusade, but that doesn’t matter. Again, it is a question of Realism. In the 19th century, this was the genre that rigorously pursued story and character by placing importance in every aspect of existence. But we live in a world that can no longer be reflected by art in this way. Our world is fragmented, ‘grand narratives’ are old hat, and everywhere we go we are bombarded by hyperstimuli: more violence, twist-endings, apparently deep characters. We regularly obsess over these things, because they are what we are used to. They feel right.
All I can conclude is that, in fact, style does come before content in this film: but only because the content itself is so standardised. It is a comment on the way we view films today, and the new ways that ideas can be expressed that defy convention. Perhaps this message, delivered through contentlessness, limits the scope of the film. But so what? In this narrowness it allows itself to get across a point. It’s not Moby-Dick, and yet the conclusion to be drawn from it is remarkably similar: sometimes how you go looking for something is more important than what you go looking for. Then again, maybe there was something in the content after all.
– Ben Britton
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