Sunday, July 22, 2018


(UK/France - 2018)

Offscreen since Woody Allen's lackluster 2015 dud IRRATIONAL MAN, Joaquin Phoenix won the Best Actor award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for his mesmerizing performance in the hellishly brutal YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE. Adapted from Jonathan Ames' 2013 novel by writer/director Lynne Ramsay (WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN), YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is, for all its arthouse bells and whistles, a genre revenge thriller at its core, so much so that I'm shocked it was given a limited release by Amazon instead of a nationwide rollout from A24. It's a generally "commercial" story, but told in an elliptical, minimalist way, with particular attention to sound and background detail, and with some precise and tension-cranking editing techniques that make it more substantive than the kind of mainstream studio fare that it could very easily be with a little tweaking. Phoenix is Joe, an enigmatic mystery man whose backstory is slowly revealed over the course of the film in subtle cutaways and recurring images in his dreams. Haunted by his past--abused by his father as a child, suffers from PTSD from his time in the military, and may be a former FBI agent--Joe lives in Yonkers with his elderly, ailing mother (Judith Roberts, best known as The Beautiful Girl Across the Hall in David Lynch's ERASERHEAD) and earns a living by tracking down abducted or trafficked children. After rescuing a young girl in Cincinnati, Joe is informed by his handler McCleary (John Doman) that his services are requested by State Senator Albert Vatto (Alex Manette), a widower whose young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) has been taken and forced into sexual slavery at a brothel catering to pedophiles being run out of a nondescript NYC residence. Armed with his weapon of choice--a hammer--Joe manages to infiltrate the house, kill several people, and whisk Nina to safety at a motel while he awaits word from McCleary. But that's where everything goes off the rails: a breaking news report reveals that Vatto took a plunge off the roof of his apartment building in what's being called a "suicide." Three cops followed Joe and Nina to the motel, where they enter the room and take the girl, with one staying behind to kill Joe, who turns the tables on him but takes a bullet through the cheek in the process. It soon becomes clear to Joe that there are powerful forces pulling the strings and that he's been drawn into a situation even more dangerous than he presumed.

A lot of the buzz around YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE likened it to a modern-day TAXI DRIVER, and it's not an inaccurate take. Like Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle, Joe is a troubled combat vet who finds a purpose in rescuing a young girl from a life of a forced underage prostitution. Joe is just as shell-shocked as Travis Bickle, though he acts out even more dangerously. He routinely engages in suicidal games like sticking a knife in his mouth or wrapping a plastic bag around his head. But where Travis tries to fit into society, Joe has long since abandoned any pretense of wanting to be a part of anything. With his slumped shoulders, ratty beard, and his long hair tucked into a ponytail and hiding under a hoodie, Phoenix lumbers through this film like a wounded animal paralyzed by internalized rage. Though the circumstances and motivations are different, Phoenix's work here is reminiscent of both the raw fearlessness demonstrated by Harvey Keitel in BAD LIEUTENANT and the driving obsession of Terence Stamp in THE LIMEY, combined with the similar sense of a ticking time bomb that Phoenix displayed in Paul Thomas Anderson's impenetrable THE MASTER and James Gray's little-seen TWO LOVERS. It's an absolutely riveting, hypnotic performance--you can't take your eyes off of him--and it's a key component that helps elevate YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE beyond its rather standard, DEATH WISH-esque foundation (plus bonus points for the unexpectedly haunting use of one-hit wonder Charlene's "I've Never Been To Me."). Notoriously difficult, prickly, and unpredictable, Phoenix has been very quietly compiling an impressive body of work as he's gotten older, and with the retirement of Daniel Day-Lewis apparently still a thing, YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE is the latest film to make a credible argument that he's a legitimate contender to inherit the title of our current Greatest Living Actor. (R, 90 mins)

(Australia/France - 2018)

It falls a little short of being the next PROPOSITION, but the Australian western SWEET COUNTRY is a powerful saga of frayed race relations in the 1920s Outback whose story and blistering social commentary still remain relevant today. In a desolate stretch of land in the Northern Territory, devoutly religious preacher Fred Smith (Sam Neill) allows his middle-aged Aboriginal farmhand Sam Kelly (non-professional Hamilton Morris, in a quietly powerful big-screen debut) and his wife Lizzie (Natassia Gorey Furber) to share his land and home. Preacher Fred is approached by abrasive, shell-shocked Boer War vet Harry March (Ewen Leslie) to borrow his "black stock" to help him build a fence on a nearby swath of property he's purchased. He hesitates, not really liking March's demeanor and informing him "We're all equal in the eyes of the Lord," to which March bullies him into loaning out Sam and Lizzie because "It's the Christian thing to do." Accompanied by their visiting teenage niece Lucy (Shanika Cole), Sam and Lizzie travel to March's, where the women help get his home in order while Sam endures all manner of verbal abuse while doing most of the work putting up the fence. With Lucy outside and Sam tending to some horses, a drunken March corners Lizzie and rapes her, telling her "I wanted the other one, but you'll do." Lizzie keeps the incident to herself, but March was belligerently asking enough questions about Lucy that upon returning home, Sam asks Preacher Fred to take her back to her parents on his journey into town for supplies, which leaves Sam and Lizzie to watch the ranch for several days. March ends up using another Aboriginal boy named Philomac (twins Tremayne and Trevon Doolan), who may or may not be the son of white landowner Kennedy (Thomas M. Wright), and the boy manages to escape March's property after being beaten and shackled as elderly, Uncle Tom-ish Archie (Gibson John) looks on. March heads to Preacher Fred's ranch, incorrectly assuming he's harboring the boy, and when he fires multiple shots through the doors and windows, Sam shoots him dead in self-defense.

Knowing he'll be hunted down and killed for murdering a white man, Sam takes Lizzie and heads to the even more desolate regions of the Outback, with ex-military sergeant and ruthless regional lawman Fletcher (Bryan Brown) forming a posse consisting of a deputy, plus Kennedy, the duplicitous Archie, and Preacher Fred, who insists on tagging along to negotiate Sam's surrender if necessary and to ensure he isn't shot dead on sight. Sam and Lizzie venture deep into still-unexplored areas inhabited by indigenous natives who have never seen white men, in territory so treacherous that Archie won't even lead Fletcher through it ("This ain't my country," Archie shrugs, adding "Never been here before"). Director Warwick Thornton, who won some acclaim for his 2009 aboriginal coming-of-age drama SAMSON AND DELILAH, fashions SWEET COUNTRY as a revisionist slow-burner, often effectively using almost subliminal-quick flashbacks and flash-forwards to create a sense of unease and ominous foreshadowing of tragedies to come (though his opening shot of a close-up of a pot of water heating to a boil as we hear two men arguing offscreen screams "SYMBOLISM!" a little too loudly). Rarely saying much and letting his sad eyes speak volumes, Morris is tasked with carrying much of the film and does a fine job, and Leslie is a memorably despicable villain. It's also great seeing old pros Neill and Brown in the kind of meaty roles that most veteran actors don't often get as they approach the emeritus years of their careers (71-year-old Brown is in terrific shape, looking at least a decade younger than his age, and even indulging in some unexpected Harvey Keitel exhibitionism at one point). The story does drag a bit once it hits its "courtroom drama" turn (the courtroom being outside, in the center of town), but it regains its momentum for a heartbreaking revelation and a downbeat finale that shows its characters and the audience no mercy. Barely released in US theaters, SWEET COUNTRY is a sleeper gem that deserves to find an audience on Blu-ray and streaming. (R, 113 mins)

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