Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on The New Portable.
I didn’t watch the Oscars this year for the first time in a good half decade. The main reason I couldn’t really be bothered to worry about it is that, while I am always months behind in my viewing, I do pay attention to what is out and what people are talking about. You Were Never Really Here got a huge amount of buzz in the movie nerd community when it came out, and a lot of people expected that it would be completely snubbed come Oscar time…and it was. This is another reminder that my Monday and Friday Oscar posts are not intended to be a celebration of Oscar, but a reckoning.
Now, having seen this, I get the frustration of many people. There’s not a clear reason that Lynne Ramsay should have been ignored for Best Director, even if the Academy didn’t feel like You Were Never Really Here deserved recognition in the Best Picture category. What Ramsay has made here is a pared-down roller coaster, a film that doesn’t waste a frame on anything it doesn’t immediately impact the story. This is the opposite of the self-indulgent filmmaking that seems to come into vogue every few years, with films bloating into longer “experiences” that frequently have a 20% fat content.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a severely damaged military veteran who makes his living locating and rescuing girls who have been trafficked in one way or another. Joe’s methods are brutal and ugly as you would expect. Joe lives in New York, and when off the clock, he takes care of his mother (Judith Roberts), who is somehow infirm, or at least fading mentally. Joe’s life is plagued by suicidal ideation that seems to come from the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his father as well as his experience in the military.
Joe is contacted through his handler by a state senator named Albert Votto (Alex Manette) whose daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has a history of disappearing. Joe is given the address of a known brothel. He stakes it out, kills off a couple of guards, and rescues Nina, taking her to a safe hotel room. Shortly thereafter, they hear that Albert Votto has killed himself. Moments, later, the hotel clerk shows up with some police officers in tow. The clerk is killed, Nina is abducted once again, and Joe is forced to kill the second police officer to escape with his own life.
And it all goes to hell. All of Joe’s contacts have been killed, and when he gets home, he finds his mother dead and her killers still in the house. A few more deaths and an interrogation to find out what is happening later and Joe contemplating suicide as he deals with his mother’s body. But no, Joe is a man on a mission to find and rescue Nina one more time.
When I say that You Were Never Really Here is stripped down to the barest of bones, I mean that completely. This is a film that combines the best elements of John Wick, Taxi Driver, and Taken and sticks them into something a skosh under 90-minutes from opening moment to the close of credits. In that respect, it’s probably the closest to Taken, being about five minutes shorter.
It’s fair to say that the Academy doesn’t really like this genre a great deal, evidenced not only by the lack of nominations for this film, but for similar films. Drive, for instance, has some similarities to this as well and swung a nomination for sound editing, but not for Ryan Gosling, Albert Brooks, or Nicolas Winding Refn. You Were Never Really Here should have been a huge coming-out party for Lynne Ramsay and reminder that Joaquin Phoenix, despite what seems like every performance he gives in every movie he’s in, still doesn’t have an Oscar.
This is not an easy movie to watch. It’s not one that is pleasant or even entertaining in the traditional sense. However, it is what a movie should be in this day and age. You Were Never Really Here tells its story as efficiently as it can, offering no niceties, sparing not a moment for pleasantries or even a word of greeting. It is purely the story it wants to tell as efficiently as it can, with a minimalism so brutal that it compares well with Joe’s methods.
Oscar’s continual willingness to ignore movies like this one is maddening and frustrating. You Were Never Really Here deserved a lot more consideration and a lot more attention than it got. It’s disappointing, because this is where movies should be going—bread and circuses are all well and good, but dammit, the stories are why we go.
Why to watch You Were Never Really Here: Stripped down, raw, brutal, and brilliant.
Why not to watch: No good reason.