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You Were Never Really Here is pretentious but never dull 

Deeply disturbing films about disturbed people can make compelling cinema, and Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay may have done just that.


You Were Never Really Here

Verdict: Pretentious but never dull

Rating:

Wonder Wheel

Verdict: Not so wonderful 

Rating:

Deeply disturbing films about deeply disturbed people can make compelling cinema, and Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay, in the eyes of some of those who have already seen You Were Never Really Here, has done just that.

I found it mannered, over-directed, listing towards the pretentious, and all too aware of its own strangeness. But it’s never dull.

Deeply disturbing films about deeply disturbed people can make compelling cinema, and Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay, in the eyes of some of those who have already seen You Were Never Really Here, has done just that

Set in New York and based on a short story by Jonathan Ames, it has distinct echoes of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver.

In the cinematic lineage of violent weirdos, there’s an obvious thread connecting Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle and the lead character here, a man we know only as Joe, played with De Niro-like intensity by Joaquin Phoenix.

Joe is an unkempt loner who lives with his infirm mother (Judith Roberts). On the whole he treats her with tenderness, a trait not conspicuous in his professional life as a hitman. Actually, he’s less a hired gun than a hired hammer, his weapon of choice.

For a price, Joe will make people disappear, although there does appear to be a warped morality in his assignments. Joe prefers to target bad people, and there’s a hint, in a series of flashbacks to a traumatised childhood — we assume at the hands of an abusive father — that he is evening the score.

He is also a combat veteran, tormented by terrible memories of the battlefield.

And there appears to be some kind of background in law enforcement, which summons yet more bad memories. One, which assails him when a Chinese tourist innocently asks him to take a photograph of her and her friends, is of a huddle of Asian children, all dead. The suggestion (Ramsay’s script, somewhat frustratingly, often does little more than suggest) is that they were somehow asphyxiated trying to enter the U.S. illegally.

Asphyxiation is a recurring theme in Joe’s life. He spends a worrying amount of time sticking his head into plastic bags.

The message we get from all this is that Joe has seen lots of horrible things, and by the time the film is over (in a mercifully taut 90 minutes), so have we. This is a long way from Charlie’s Angels, but there is a sort of Charlie figure, who gives Joe his jobs.

One of them is to find a senator’s young, abducted daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov), who is being forced to work as an under-age sex slave in a Manhattan brothel.

Joe’s brief is to get her out safely, though the senator (Alex Manette) also wants retribution. It duly comes from the end of Joe’s hammer, not that he’s averse to using guns and knives.

This is a brutally violent film, though Ramsay (who also delved into a troubled mind in the acclaimed 2011 film We Need To Talk About Kevin) at least spares us by showing the worst of the violence obliquely.

For instance, when Joe does get past the security detail and into the brothel, his short reign of terror unfolds only on the building’s fuzzy surveillance cameras.

Set in New York and based on a short story by Jonathan Ames, it has distinct echoes of Martin Scorsese’s 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver

More than anything, more even than a psychological thriller, Ramsay’s film is a character study. Phoenix is on screen almost without respite, which is another reason to be grateful for the compact running time, because he is challenging company. Or rather, Joe is. Or maybe both of them are.

It’s a commanding, committed performance, although, very disconcertingly, I happened to see You Were Never Really Here shortly after I’d seen another new film, Mary Magdalene, in which a lavishly hirsute Phoenix looks pretty much the same, playing Jesus of Nazareth, as he does here.

He’s better-suited, physically, to the role of a disturbed killer. And at least he piled on the pounds to play Joe (again evoking De Niro), whose bare torso is all blubber, muscle and scars.

Indeed, there can be no doubting the commitment on both sides of the camera, but Ramsay’s meticulous, highly stylised direction makes it an uncomfortable watch.

It’s an uncomfortable listen, too. The deliberately harsh score is by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, who got a richly-deserved Oscar nomination for Phantom Thread, but won’t sell many soundtrack CDs on the back of this.

The latest Woody Allen film, Wonder Wheel, has a much easier sound; lots of cheerful Fifties harmonies whisking us back to Eisenhower-era Coney Island, and all the fun of the fair. In truth, there’s precious little fun anywhere, as a precarious love triangle develops between domestic drudge Ginny (Kate Winslet), her brutish husband Humpty (Jim Belushi) and dishy, literature-loving lifeguard Mickey (Justin Timberlake).

Further complicating this uneasy situation are Ginny’s young son by her first marriage, whose twin enthusiasms are movies and pyromania, and Humpty’s grown-up daughter from his first marriage, sweet-natured Carolina (Juno Temple), who has been estranged from her father for years, after eloping with a gangster.

Now that she’s no longer married to the mob, Humpty welcomes her back.

But her ex-husband’s menacing associates (Steve Schirripa and Tony Sirico from The Sopranos, not exactly stretching themselves) are looking for her. Meanwhile, to complicate matters even further, Mickey falls for Carolina, clouding Ginny’s hopes for a brighter future.

It’s a perfectly watchable film, but oddly devoid of jauntiness or wit; in fact, with Humpty thundering around boorishly in his vest it’s as if Allen is trying to make his own version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Moreover, Timberlake is miscast, and his narrations direct to camera manage to be both clunky and twee.

As for the bigger issue of how we’re meant to feel about watching Woody Allen films now that Hollywood seems to have come down on the side of Dylan Farrow, who has accused her adoptive father of molesting her, I’ll confine myself to judging the art, not the artist.

A classic Western from Outback Oz 

Sweet Country (15)

Verdict: Terrific Australian 'Western'

Rating:

The title of this truly gripping film, a classic Western in all but its setting, is ironic.

The backdrop is Australia’s Northern Territory, where the Outback has a genuine beauty but is also harsh and unforgiving, anything but sweet. So are the local settlers, especially to the indigenous population, who are treated like feudal serfs. The only man who shows them respect is a God-fearing farmer, Fred Smith (Sam Neill). Against his better judgment, Fred lends his Aboriginal stockman, Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris), to a new neighbour, war veteran Harry March (Ewen Leslie), for a couple of days.

Sam duly rides over with his wife and niece to help ‘the white fella’, but Harry is not a principled man like Fred; he is a callous bully and, it turns out, a rapist. That he is half-addled by traumatic memories of the Western Front hardly excuses his brutality.

When Harry later storms over to Fred’s place in an alcohol-fuelled search for a runaway boy, there is an exchange of gunfire. Harry is killed and Sam and his wife go on the run, hunted by a posse led by the bigoted local lawman, Sergeant Fletcher (Bryan Brown).

Eventually there is a trial, presided over by a visiting judge, who must decide whether Sam shot Harry in self-defence. For most of the townsfolk, however, it’s a clear-cut case of murder.

It’s a simple but stirring tale, wonderfully acted and directed with terrific verve but also great sensitivity by Warwick Thornton, who is himself from an Aboriginal background. He has done his own cinematography, too, turning the extraordinary landscape almost into a character in its own right. This is a very accomplished film.

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