Lynne Ramsey’s new movie You Were Never Really Here revolves around a different kind of boy’s club: a sex trafficking ring.
It’s remarkable how many different places can wear the term “boy’s club” deservedly. A phrase found both high and low, it’s responsive to the notion that, for being just half the world’s population, men hold the lion’s share of places, and, more importantly, constructed spaces, on the globe. Congresses are boy’s clubs; so are most bars and pubs. But the film industry is so widely pervasive that what is depicted in major motion pictures can affect the cultural criterion of what’s important or acceptable.
For younger generations at least, most people’s understanding of what looks cool, what’s sexy and what isn’t, how to flirt and how to cross a line, was conceived on screen. And when things as subtle and subliminal as the cinematic “male gaze” can affect how women are seen and see themselves, one thing that should never be a boy’s club is film.
One of just three female directors of the nineteen films in Official Selection this year at Cannes, Lynne Ramsey’s new movie You Were Never Really Here revolves around a different kind of boy’s club: a sex trafficking ring. The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a disaffected middle-aged man who lives with his mother, in Brooklyn, but works as an agent for an operation which fetches underage girls from trafficking at the behest of their parents.
With serial killer’s beard and a gut never before seen in Phoenix, he’s not the glamorous kind of secret agent, and his work takes us to the places where sex trafficking often hides.
You Were Never Really Here opens on the end of a mission, in which Joe cleans a Cleveland motel room meticulously, exits through the back, and then breaks an assailant’s nose in the dark alleyway. When he leaves in a taxi, he’s gone without a trace, but missing from this opener is the subject of his mission. Ramsey leaves open whether the girl was rescued or not.
Joe’s story takes off with his next mission, in which his back-alley agency is visited by one Senator Williams of New York (Alessandro Nivola), reporting that his thirteen-year-old daughter, Nina, has been kidnapped recently and put into a ring. Williams is distraught but not greatly disturbed, and even hands Joe’s boss an address where he thinks she might be.
This is an unusually large client for the firm, and Joe gets to work right away. His tools are a hammer, duct, tape, and trash bags. Joe scopes out the given location, an elegant brownstone in lower Manhattan, and quickly breaks in, breaks a few skulls, and extracts Nina, a disturbingly fragile young girl played by Ekaterina Samsonov who says almost nothing on the car ride out. Williams gave Joe a meeting place at a cheap Harlem hotel to return the girl, and they arrive without trouble. Slowly, unease falls over the audience watching at the Lumiere Theater – that of a movie that seems wrapped up in the first forty minutes.
When Martin Scorsese premiered Taxi Driver at Cannes in 1976, it was roundly booed by the crowd for being too violent. It went on to win the Palme D’Or. Ramsey’s film You Were Never Really Here, which closed out this year’s competition, begins with a scrambled up mini-version of Scorsese’s masterpiece; the same ratio of violence, politics, and young girls, just different maneuvering. Joe is nowhere near as demented as Robert DeNiro’s Travis Bickle becomes, by the end of Taxi Driver, but you are keenly aware as he does his job that there is more to it than just a paycheck.
Uncued flashbacks encircle the plot of You Were Never Really Here as it unfolds, scenes of a young Joe, taking abuse from his now-dead father and powerlessly watching him hurt his mom. The middle-aged Joe has a tendency to stick a trash bag over his head and start counting his breaths, stopping before he passes out, an action which appears to be both an endurance technique and a way to calm himself. This is clearly referential to his painful past, as is his entire career; like Travis Bickle, he wants to protect the innocence of others as a way to retroactively save himself.
Ramsey’s film You Were Never Really surpasses the death count of Taxi Driver, and shifts away from its tightly-wound psychological plot, when Joe and Nina, waiting for Senator Williams at the Harlem hotel, turn on the TV and see that Williams has recently plunged off a Midtown high-rise, in what appears to be an act of suicide. Suddenly, two men dressed as police officers shoot open the door, grab the girl, and try to kill Joe. He has been betrayed, but it’s unclear who would want Nina badly enough to kill her father and take her back.
Wounded and confused, Joe escapes the hotel and goes on a rampage of murder to try and get Nina back to safety, starting with the boss who ratted him out. He finds out that Senator Williams had long been “trading daughters” with the Governor of New York until the Governor had begun to like Nina so much that he had taken her away from Williams, and had him offed when he tried to reclaim her. Now Joe must kill the Governor’s hitmen before they kill him, and go to the Governor’s Mansion to get Nina back, perhaps assassinating the head of state in the process. In retrospect, this is an absolutely ridiculous notion for the audience to swallow, but we do it easily, thanks to the astonishing power of Lynne Ramsey’s subject and style.
There were a number of films at Cannes this year which used serious political events as inspiration for action-packed, violent plots. Okja tackled Monsanto and the American meat industry in a storyline which also included car chases, riots, and Jake Gyllenhaal losing his mind.
Jupiter’s Moon used the Syrian refugee crisis as fodder for a story with levitation, gunfights and hotel shootouts. But sex trafficking is, arguably, one of the biggest political issues to still be so unacknowledged, which means that, for Ramsey’s movie, she had free reign between fact and fiction.
You Were Never Really allows for a pedophilic governor and senator to be running rings in lower Manhattan, simply because there’s hardly any light shed on sex trafficking to give us an idea of what it actually looks like. In this case, it’s almost honorable to go with the most ridiculous, offensive option; anything to get people talking about this issue.
Ramsey, for her part, does a magnificent job of making the story more than just a politically cognizant version of Taken. At every turn, she undoes the tropes of modern action films to create a more physically realistic, emotionally human experience; it feels real simply because nothing else in this genre ever does. The first indication of this takes place in the opening scene, back in the dark alley in Cleveland. Joe takes down his assailant in just a few punches, but when the shot widens we see he isn’t out cold, just lying on the ground nursing his bruised jaw. Joe is a strong, gruff man, but he has a gut and no gun – don’t expect him to be jumping off rooftops or cartwheeling between bullets in his quest to get Nina back.
His entry into the brownstone sex ring goes so well largely because he has a hammer and no one else does; it’s also shown to the audience like it’s security footage from inside the house, where Joe is a foreign, lumbering presence. Rosie and the Originals’ song “Angel Baby” plays throughout this sequence to accompany the CCTV, cutting into disjointed segments as the security footage cuts to different rooms. Watch the scene, and the song will never sound the same again, the voice seductive, the lyrics infantilizing. In this way, Ramsey is able to affect a film that is stylistically brilliant but still puts the story, and the issues, first.
Walking out the theater with the rest of the disturbed, electrified crowd, I knew that You Were Never Really here wouldn’t get the Palme D’Or. Closing out the festival is a sign of respect in itself, and in 70 years of Cannes, only one female director has ever won the grand prize. But Lynne Ramsey’s new film is a masterpiece equivalent to the great works of Scorsese, De Palma, and however many other men you feel like canonizing. Come Oscars season, I fervently hope for credit where credit is due.
You Were Never Really Here received : Award for Best Screenplay (tied) , 2017
Award for Best Screenplay (tied) , 2017
Award for Best Actor , 2017