You’ll need a strong stomach and an appreciation for cinematic style over narrative sense if you plan to see You Were Never Really Here, an urban smudge of a blood-crazed fairy-tale. Lynne Ramsay’s self-conscious modern noir is wildly implausible and infatuated with its own tough-guy posturing. It’s never boring, I’ll give it that. And if nothing else, you can spend its running time recalling better movies it seems to pay tribute to — Taxi Driver, Hardcore, Mona Lisa, The Professional, Oldboy, Drive. I’m sure the list is a lot longer.
In Ramsay’s adaptation of a Jonathan Ames book, Joaquin Phoenix plays the taciturn Joe, who it’s easy to assume is a serial killer. The opening moments misdirect us with glimpses of bloody tissue, a burning photo, a girl’s gold necklace. Actually, he’s a vigilante-for-hire, tracking down girls who’ve gone missing — usually absorbed into the gruesome world of sex trafficking.
His latest case: find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the daughter of a rising politician. As this physical and emotional wreck of a rescuer, Phoenix lumbers through the movie boasting a scarred, chunky dad bod and a greasy tangle of long graying hair. It’s the sort of vanity-free physical performance that may have contributed to his best actor win at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
We see Joe interact with his loving, dotty mother (Judith Roberts) and his main employer (John Doman). It’s not hard to guess, though — as his search for Nina begins to implicate Very Important Men — that anybody in Joe’s orbit is bound to come to a bad end. The movie gives us glimmers of trauma from Joe’s childhood life, but they’re never explained, simply served up as fractured psychological backstory.
Director Ramsay — whose Morvern Callar I sort of liked while hating her last, We Need to Talk About Kevin — sabotages herself with self-indulgent mood and heavy symbolism. She also enjoys sophomorically “ironic” soundtrack choices (“I’ve Never Been to Me,” “If I Knew You Were Comin’ I’d’ve Baked a Cake”). In a movie seemingly designed to show that she can be as macho and savage as any male director, Ramsay never tries to convince us how Joe can simply wander the city streets, hammering henchmen and thugs to death without attracting any interest from law enforcement.
I know, I know, it’s not that sort of story. It wants to work via its own movie-world logic. But if I want to watch Phoenix wander through a convoluted mystery, I’d rather rewatch Inherent Vice; it’s a hell of a lot more fun, and a whole less fake.
Also opening, Little Pink House often feels, in its own way, pretty fake, though it’s based on a true story. Still, it’s an easier film to swallow. What tends to keep it believable (as she did in the recent, regrettable Nostalgia) is its star, Catherine Keener.
Here she plays Susette Kelo, a New London, Connecticut, paramedic whom we meet as she’s leaving her second, failed marriage. Hoping to start fresh with a place of her own, she lucks into a charming, affordable house with a great river view, which she buys, renovates and paints a cozy shade of pink.
Her newfound peace is only temporary, though, once a slick political operative, Charlotte Wells (Jeanne Tripplehorn), is hired by the governor (Aaron Douglas) to take over the long-dormant New London Development Corporation. The corporation is repurposed as a blunt-force tool to redevelop “blighted” local neighborhoods by buying or seizing the residents’ homes and reselling the land to a major industry — in this case, Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.
The movie’s opening scenes include a surplus of on-the-nose dialogue, especially when Tripplehorn and the governor explicitly explain the political impetus for the New London project. (The guv knows that if he’s seen to “rescue” a blue-collar town, he’ll likely win a landslide reelection.) If the movie errs here on the side of over-explanation, in contrast to the Lynne Ramsay movie, at least it’s clear what’s going on, and what the stakes are.
Susette is one of the townsfolk approached by eager realtors, whose plastic smiles melt when she tells them, thanks, but no thanks — she’s not selling her house. As you can guess, strong-arm tactics ensue, with the relatable, working-class Susette having to go up against the polished, glitteringly insincere Charlotte. (Charlotte has easy catchphrases designed to mislead, like her favorite: “Economic development and social justice — they go hand-in-hand.”)
Watching the tension between both Keener and Tripplehorn’s characters and the women’s acting styles is one of House’s pleasures. The other is the relationship between Susette and hunky antiques dealer Tim (Callum Keith Rennie). Fresh out of a bad marriage, she’s attracted to Tim but pulls back from committing to yet another guy. The way the movie shows how they negotiate their feelings for each other is nicely done.
There’s one last strength to this otherwise pleasant but by-the-numbers drama. It leads you to expect the sort of victory these fact-based dramas usually deliver. Don’t be so sure about that.
You Were Never Really Here. With Joaquin Phoenix, Ekaterina Samsonov, Judith Roberts, John Doman. Adapted and directed by Lynne Ramsay. Rated R. 89 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.
Little Pink House. With Catherine Keener, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Callum Keith Rennie. Written and directed by Courtney Balaker. Unrated. 98 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.