Jonathan Ames

You Were Never Really Here

10/03/18

There’s plenty to admire in You Were Never Really Here. Lynne Ramsay’s edgy, coiled-spring of an action movie, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, is deeply unsettling, even if I can’t help drawing comparisons with an even better film, Taxi Driver, with which it shares a central premise.

Ramsay’s take on the idea is a much more fragmentary affair than Martin Scorcese’s 1976 masterpiece, flickering eerily in and out of past trauma and often showing us images that turn out to be no more than sick fantasies in the head of the central character.

That character is Joe (Joaquin Phoenix),  a shambling, bearlike presence in this film, muttering in monosyllables and wandering morosely from scene to scene as he metes out grim retribution to those he believes are beyond saving. He’s a traumatised ex-soldier and former FBI agent, who now earns a crust  tracking down missing girls – and sadly there seems to be no shortage of them in the cities of America. In his down time, Joe cares for his aging mother (Judith Roberts), with whom he shares a touching, almost childlike bond.

Joe has a healthy paranoia about being seen by others (hence the title) and always does his level best to stay off the radar. His services are enlisted by Senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette), whose teenage daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been kidnapped by a well-connected paedophile. She is being held hostage in a city hotel room, so Joe goes in to rescue her, armed with his favourite weapon, a ball-peen hammer. But he soon comes to fully appreciate just how powerful Nina’s kidnapper is – and it isn’t long before he has become a target for the man’s deadly enforcers.

This is an uncompromisingly brutal film, the many scenes of violence somehow made even more affecting by the fact that we glimpse them from a distance, or through the impassive monochrome gaze of a hotel’s security cameras. The action is liberally crosscut with harrowing memories of Joe’s troubled childhood, when he and his mother were regularly terrorised by Joe’s abusive father. It soon becomes apparent that what Joe is seeking more than anything else is some kind of redemption for his own suffering.

This is not an easy film to watch, but it’s nonetheless mesmerising. Phoenix is utterly convincing in the central role, there’s a bruising score by Johnny Greenwood, and Ramsay directs with a confident, almost hallucinatory style, never over-explaining the story, allowing her viewers to reach their own conclusions through the barrage of conflicting images she immerses them in.

It’s a powerful brew, not for the faint-hearted.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Extra Man

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26/12/15

File this one under ‘films we missed first time around.’ Originally released in 2010 and based on the novel by Jonathan Ames, we only came across it by accident, because we bought the DVD as a Christmas stocking filler for my parents-in-law who adored the book, and we ended up watching it with them. I’m glad we did, because this is something of a little gem – featuring a great cast, brilliant acting and a quirky and engaging story.

Louis Ives (Paul Dano) is a hapless young teacher with a predilection for women’s clothing. When he’s caught trying on a bra at his rather stuffy school, he gets the boot and decides to head off to New York in search of a fresh start (he has vague aspirations of becoming a writer). Looking for somewhere to stay, he ends up as roommate to Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) a totally unreconstructed ex-playwrite who after falling on hard times, has been reduced to acting as a male escort to older, more fiscally advantaged women. Henry refuses to accept that he is struggling, even when he has to apply boot polish to his ankles because he can’t afford to buy socks – and though his opinions are occasionally shockingly out of touch with any kind of reality, still his character is so charismatic that you can’t help liking the man.

With Henry acting as a sort of life coach, Louis finds himself inexorably drawn into the world of the male escort (or ‘Extra Man’ as Henry prefers to call it). The ensuing tale is a whimsical delight, though I can see exactly why it didn’t trouble the multiplexes – it’s far too offbeat to capture big audiences. There are superb performances from the two leads and excellent supporting roles from the likes of Katie Holmes, John Pankow and Dan Hedaya, but I did feel rather sorry for John C. Reilly, who as the mysterious Gershon Gruen was obliged to talk in a high-pitched comedy voice throughout the proceedings.

The Extra Man was never going to be a cinematic blockbuster but it’s certainly worth checking out on the small screen if you get the chance.

4 stars

Philip Caveney