“You Were Never Really Here”

Watching Joaquin Phoenix work is reason enough to see this film. Jonny Greenwood’s score is another.

Scottish director Lynne Ramsey films like “ Molvern Callar” ( 2002) never tell a story chronologically. In “You Were Never Really Here” , Phoenix does want he does best, plays a reality-taxed, wracked individual with  acute visceral feelings. He is a PTSD sufferer, who is hired to rescue  a U.S. Senator’s thirteen-year-old daughter. As Joe, he has flash backs to childhood abuse and war atrocities. Child sex rings and sex traffickers add to the taut tone. The tenseness is charged with a wavering electric current that keeps the viewer apprehensive throughout. We long for ennui, or at least a respite from sound whispering voices and plastic bags pulled tightly over faces.

Back exits, trash cans, police sirens, late night terminals  and wet alleyways predominate. Joe’s abode with his dementia-ridden mother ( Judith Roberts) offers no respite. It, too, becomes a murder scene. Weird scenarios play out. His mother watches “Psych” alone and plays “gothcha!” games on him. We see his battle scars as he puts her to bed. City dogs bark as he cleans up her water logged bathroom. He chastised her for the 1972 cream cheese in the fridge, and polishes silver with her. He likes green jelly beans. It is hard to see him as a vigilante, a killer for hire.

The Senator is as creepy as Joe’s weapon of choice, the hammer. His daughter Nina ( Ekaterina Samsonov) must be retrieved. He wants the kidnappers/brothel owners hurt. He wants Nina for unfatherly reasons we glean. This tawdry storyline drags us in more than most viewers will wish to be. Jonny Greenwood’s score and Joaquin Phoenix’s dazzling performance makes the horrific vice psychologically edgy. Joe respectfully buries his mother in lake waters, and we recall the scene where they sang old show tunes together. As Phoenix floats submerged in the waters stillness, we wonder if this netherworld will bring him peace. Can a murderer gain our empathy? Can a soldier’s bizarre suffering make him something to be feared? While author Jonathan Ames may consider his protagonist an avenging angel, most will see Joe as a damaged Marine and former FBI operative, who has kind underpinnings though he is a trained killing machine.

“The Beguiled”

A remake of the 1971 Clint Eastwood film starring Colin Farrell, “Beguiled” is atmoshperic and Freudian,and a tad silly. Kirsten Dunst’s character is the least plausible. Why would a woman, who wishes to escape her claustrophobic five-student classroom, not act out when her lover is poisoned before they can run Westward Ho? Edwina (Dunst) was emotional enough when she pushed him down the staircase, emotional enough when he ripped her bodice of its pearl buttons. Can this lonely soul just sew his shroud without any retribution or outcry ?

“Character development” this critic screams, again for Colin Farrell, our Union mercenary of Irish origin, Corporal John McBurney. He is a wounded “player”, who plays all seven females, no matter their age with flattery and teasing unctuousness. He is not unlikeable, just into self-preservation and self-gratification. The women/girls are all beguiled as shown in a wonderful table scene where each try to compete for his favor.

The eleven-year-old mushroom picker, Amy, portrayed beautifully by Oona Laurence, is a picture of braided hair and sweetness as the apron-clad rescuer. Amy helps the leg-wounded corporal hobble to The Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, where he is treated and allowed to convalesce instead of taken to a Confederate prison camp. The young Amy introduces him to her classmates: the musical Jane ( Angourie Rice), the bright Marie (Addison Riecke), the playful yet solicitous, Emily (Emma Howard), and the lusty coquette, Alicia ( Elle Fanning).

Headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) takes full charge. She is herself charmed by McBurney. One of the funniest lines,however, comes out of her mouth as she tells teacher Edwina to bring the saw and the anatomy book. Fear and prayer mix with suspense to create an odd tone here. Miss Martha feels driven to act. She asks for suggestions, and the girls by in.

The cinematography is pretty: all haze, Spanish moss, and wild garden. The school’s antebellum splendor is punctuated with six huge Ionic columns – all fluted and more welcoming than the monstrous, filigreed, iron gate. Shots of girls playing at the water pump, hoeing lackadaisically, hanging frocks on the clothesline, and singing in the candlelit music room are lovely. Director Sofia Coppola has an eye for the scene be it French lessons or firelight brandies. For me, Coppola elicited the mushroom picker in Truffaut’s film “The Wild Child”. Six Ionic columns with their staunch flutes seem to hold this edifice aloft. The females under Ms. Martha ultimately do the same.

1864 Virginia has these Southern belles calling the Union soldiers “blue bellies” and vocalizing that their charge could be dangerous. Rape and rapine are both feared. McBurney says that he is pleased to be a prisoner. This soon changes as he lay on their fainting couch. The sounds of water splashing and cloth being rung out, and the in and out of breath, soft hummings and giggles and window peerings set the stage, and remind us of the quiet of this century. Birdsong and cannon booms mingle. Cicadas win out, and rise again.

The corporal has lines galore: ” Tell me a little about yourself? I have never come across such delicate beauty.” If the roses and flowers of this school need trimming, he sharpens his tool to assist. “I have missed being with you”, our wounded soldier whispers to Edwina. He is found in Alicia’s bed before his words evaporate. McBurney’s leg is re-mangled when Edwina pushes him down the stairs. Once he awakens to his fate he screams the question: “Are you ladies learning about castration?” He shoots down a crystal chandelier in his fury, yet Colin Farrell does not seem like a real threat. The women are in control. As they wait under the Ionic facade, for the Confederate soldiers to take the body away, we wonder why they needed to tie the help sign around the iron gate. The women have this!