Writer: Lynne Ramsay (screenplay), Jonathan Ames (novel)
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Alessandro Nivola, Alex Manette, John Doman, Judith Roberts
Running time: 95mins
What’s the story: Troubled private investigator and enforcer Joe is charged with finding Nina, the daughter of a US senator trapped in an underage sex ring.
What’s the verdict: The sun must have boiled a few brains on La Croisette at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. That is the only explanation for the praise heaped on Lynne Ramsay’s achingly arthouse redressing of 80s action thrillers.
Winner of Best Actor for Joaquin Phoenix, (shared) Best Screenplay for Ramsay and Palme D’Or nominated, we’re crying a case of Emperor’s New Clothes with You Were Never Really Here.
Yes, Phoenix won Best Actor, but his Joe is a supreme slice of self-indulgence. One of those turns where the heavy beard, heavy physique and heavy howling are supposed to convey a believable character. Imagine Martin Sheen played all of Apocalypse Now the way he did in that opening hotel room scene for an idea of what’s in store here.
True, Ramsay won Best Screenplay (shared with The Killing of a Sacred Deer and adapted from Jonathan Ames’ same name novel). But, all involved seem to think they are freshly minting plots and ideas that were the staple of straight-to-video shelf-fillers thirty years ago. The premise, one man goes outside the law to bust a paedophile ring, was done in 1989 as Kinjite, starring Charles Bronson, produced by shlock meisters Golan/Globus.
Joe is disturbed by memories of his time as a soldier in Afghanistan, as an immigration officer making a gruesome discovery and his dark childhood. Insert disturbed Vietnam vet movie of your choosing – Rolling Thunder, The Exterminator, or Taxi Driver, which seems to be Ramsay’s key text.
Also throw in Oldboy. Joe’s weapon of choice is a heavy-looking hammer and, as with that film, past trauma damages the present.
What we’re saying is, Ramsay brings nothing new to the table.
Jonny Greenwood’s score apes Cliff Martinez’s work on Drive. A political intrigue subplot involving Nivola and Manette as New York senators fails to convince, and the ease with which Joe dispatches his opponents is laughable.
Samsonov does well with a nothing role as Nina, Joe’s shot at salvation, her experiences twinned with his. The reliable John Doman provides a flicker of light as the guy who gives Joe his assignments, as does Judith Roberts as Joe’s ailing, but lively mum.
And Thomas Townend’s cinematography ensures Joe’s trawl through this rotten Apple at least looks as good as, or better than, the films it echoes.
But, without facetious intent, episode two of Daredevil season one, in which the blind superhero also breaks up a child-trafficking ring, has a greater emotional resonance than the forced profundity here.
Joe has a habit of putting a plastic bag over his head to deal with his past abuse. It’s an apt image for an airless film that leaves you feeling you’ve been Taken for a ride.