You Were Never Really Here

F Scott Fitzgerald’s last novella was The Last Tycoon, an unfinished thinly disguised portrait of Irving Thalberg, one of the great Hollywood producers of the pre-war years.

Some years later (1976), this was made into a film by Elia Kazan from a script by Harold Pinter, starring a young Robert de Niro as Monroe Starr, the last tycoon, and Ingrid Boulting as Kathleen, his impossibly beautiful love interest. It was an interesting, if not great film, but de Niro, as usual, was mesmerising and the whole was beautifully shot. There is a key sequence in the film where Starr describes a series of vignettes, or scenes to a young couple.

‘And what happens then?’ one of them asks.

‘I don’t know,’ says Starr, ‘I was just making pictures.’

I was reminded of this sequence while watching Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, which is an object lesson in making pictures, albeit one that is not, ultimately, a great picture.

The story is flimsy; in fact so flimsy that ‘flimsy’ is too strong a word. What’s a word that means flimsier than flimsy? Gossamer thin, perhaps, delicate as Belgian lace, insubstantial, non-existent?

Joe is a kind of bounty hunter who finds and brings home runaway or kidnapped children and metes out brutal justice to the bad guys with his preferred weapon – a hammer. He lives with his crippled, elderly mother and there are occasional, brief, unclear flashbacks to the events that may have brought him to his lonely, unhappy, violent existence. And then he is hired to rescue the runaway daughter of an aspiring US Senator and is sucked into a strange, dark, unknowing conspiracy where his hammer ends up being very busy. Er…that’s it.

The film stands or falls on Joaquin Phoenix’s lead performance as he is in 99% of the scenes and it is his brooding, avenging angel, violent presence and obscure back story which drives the film. And he doesn’t let Ramsay down. Joe/Phoenix is inarticulate, mumbling when he speaks at all, jowly, heavy-set, thickly, scraggly bearded with greasy, greying, pony-tailed locks and nondescript clothes. He is flabby but powerful and strong and his violence is sudden and over-whelming. Phoenix is a far cry from the Hollywood actor of Gladiator; he is like the major star who goes back to performing in some obscure play in a quiet, seaside town and his performance has method-acting written all over it – which is not a criticism; you believe totally in Joe.

Ramsay has spent a lot of time at film school, mostly watching Citizen Kane; her film is stylized in the extreme, sometimes too much so and it was some 30 minutes into the film before a story started to develop. It borders on pretentious nonsense but manages (just) not to tip over the line. Ramsay likes her obscure camera angles, extreme close-ups, gaps and spaces in the story, silences, strange sounds (intriguing soundtrack by Johnny Greenwood), unexpected scenes, shocking violence (although more in the hinted at than in the doing), long tracking shots of Joe walking or driving or watching stuff. My son kept commenting on how short the film is (90 minutes) and I said that if they removed all the scenes of Joe walking or driving or looking broody, the film would be about 11 minutes long.

Half the time you think the film doesn’t and isn’t going to work but ultimately it does. However, the ending is wrong. If I have one major criticism it is that the film ends two minutes later than it should – Ramsay turns a shocking, visceral but nonetheless apt and fully in keeping with the rest of the film ending, into a soppy, Hollywood happy ending.

Monroe Starr would have known which one worked best.

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