First. A gripe. Why does everyone (reviewers, pundits, friends) call Joaquin Phoenix, Joaquim, with an M. That’s not his name.
It’s important, because he is.
He is about to assume a place at the altar of greatness, and this is the start of it, thanks to the high priestess of film making, Lynne Ramsay.
I have followed Ramsay’s career with close interest given that she is Scottish and I was privileged enough to be invited to the world premiere of her debut, Ratcatcher in 1999.
That particular movie met with dismay with one of my fellow guests, the Marketing Director of VisitScotland, who was despairing of the Scots’ film industry’s penchance to make depressing (his word) movies about my home country, and his product.
The journey has had few stops in the intervening 19 years. A movie every half decade has not make her a household name. But if you care even a jot about cinema she must feature high in your list of the greatest living directors. Every frame she has committed to celluloid is crafted perfectly and Morvern Callar (an astounding book given a 10/10 treatment by Ramsay), We need to talk about Keven (ditto) and the aforementioned Ratcatcher (her own original screenplay) are all simply great movies.
Every single one of her films (and two short films) have been recognised at Cannes – reflecting her status as auteur in the cinematic world.
You Were Never Really Here is no exception, nominated for the Palm D’or, it is a continuation of Ramsay’s faultless performance. What will catch the headlines (small as they may be) though, will be Pheonix’s performance, as Joe. It’s highly redolent of Javier Bardem’s in the Coen Brothers’ magnificent No Country for Old Men in which they both play mysterious hitmen with little to say.
His pursuit of justice for the young victims of a New York paedophile circle is cold blooded. Some of the extremely violent acts of retribution captured in this would turn your stomach were they committed to screen, but Ramsay opts instead to deliver them via a series of quite original set ups (for instance on CCTV) or chooses instead to share the aftermath and not the moment (think Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs in which you think you see, but don’t, the ear removal to Steeler’s Wheel, never to be the same, Stuck in the Middle.)
Phoenix is frankly, awesome in this. His, often topless, performance reveals an ageing body, moobs and all, that tells a million stories. The scars, bruises and lumps are each the souvenir of some untold act of revenge in which he escaped less than Scot-free.
His back story is told in tiny scraps. Clearly he suffered an abused childhood, protected by his still living, and loving, ageing mother. The trauma has shaped his career and although the back-story is never revealed in detail, only suggestion, we get the point that it has traumatised him so much that he often has to breathe into polythene bags, covering his head, to replace his panic-attack-driven hyperventilation with a dose of CO2. The auto suffocation this suggests is not so. It’s his way of coping. Of living.
The narrative of the story revolves around the rescue of a New York Governor’s abducted daughter – the beautiful Ekaterina Samson (Nina), whom he rescues from a Chelsea apartment in a trail of blood. Stupefied with drugs, she has little more to contribute to the proceedings than Phoenix, and this becomes the start of a gig that’s about to go awry.
Really, the story is not that important. We get it, but it’s tricky to follow as it pursues a complex narrative (not that there’s much spoken dialogue) structure.
What matters is that Phoenix’s delivery from his personal hell is increasingly tied to Nina’s own safety. His mother too (a lovely performance by Judith Roberts) features heavily in the plot as she appears to be the only real love in the callous Joe’s life.
Ramsay has delivered yet another perfect movie. Hideous, beautiful, cold but engaging. She might not be box office gold, but she’ll keep her fans baying for more.
Roll on 2023.