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Phoenix Sans Gimmicks: You Were Never Really Here (Cannes 2017 Review)

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By Ali Moosavi.

Lynn Ramsey’s violent film noir was the last film to be shown at the Cannes Official Competition. It is based on a short novella by Jonathan Ames. Joaquin Phoenix has considerably beefed up to play the role of Joe, a heavy, doing jobs for a private dick. He is a 21st-century version of Melville’s Samurai: cold, efficient, but much more violent.  His weapon of choice is a steel hammer.

A senator, who doesn’t want the publicity of involving the police, hires Joe to bring back his daughter whom he suspects has been kidnapped by a gang involved in using underage girls for sex. “Hurt them,” the senator says. Armed with a hammer, Joe embarks on the journey to a dark and violent world.

NeverRamsey gives us only a few clues as to what has made Joe the violent man that he is. Flashbacks, lasting only a few seconds, seem to indicate a troubled childhood involving abuse or self-abuse. We also know that he has done combat and experienced the horror of war. When not wielding his hammer, he is a quiet man living with his mother. He is obviously a tortured soul, having had a troubled childhood. The pain he has suffered as a child has made him very sensitive to child abuse and he becomes obsessive with finding the child and being merciless on those who have abducted and abused her. Ramsey uses innocent sixties songs when any act of violence occurs, creating antithetical situations. She has also made expert use of sound and the soundtrack music, perfectly capturing the menace prevailing around Joe. Though Ramsey has not provided us many concrete clues about Joe’s past, leaving the viewers to make up their own analysis from the fragments of information provided. We live in violent times, this film notes. Phoenix is, as always, impressive in a brooding performance, deservedly winning the Best Actor award at Cannes 2017.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.

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