You Were Never Really Here [2017] – A Lean & Potent Depiction of Trauma and Loss

Scottish film-maker Lynn Ramsay’s works are often about broken people. Through the inner burden carried by these isolated damaged people, she tries to explore the underbelly of a debased society. Ramsay’s aesthetics are at once intimate, fragmentary, psychologically disturbing, and elegantly beautiful as she uses formal dexterity to turn her film into an original work. On the first look, Ramsay’s three feature films – Ratcatcher (1999), Morvern Callar (2002), and We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) – seem like simple dramatic exercise on trauma. Yet her aural-visual trance-narratives combined with the narrow subjective field-of-vision turns the dramatic material into an immensely watchable poem of chaos and carnage. Ramsay’s new film You Were Never Really Here (2017), which received a standing ovation at last year’s Cannes (also won best screenplay and best actor award in its unfinished state), once again broods on the traumatic experiences of an emotionally repressed individual. However, unlike the female protagonists of the director’s last two films, the male protagonist here is a violent guy – a hit-man with certain codes of ethics. 

Apart from Ratcatcher, Lynn Ramsay’s other two films are based on books. But what’s fascinating and idiosyncratic about her adaptations is that they aren’t straightforward filmic conversions. Ramsay is the kind of film-maker who involves herself from scripting process to casting to set-design. So she takes a book and essentially strips off the story’s elements to fit into her own vision. In retrospect, one could appreciate both the film and book versions, and entirely for different reasons. You Were Never Really Here (2017) is based upon Jonathan Ames’ novella ‘Bored to Death’. It tells the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a spooky lumbering figure. He’s a suicidal, middle-aged guy who is hinted to be a military vet stricken with PTSD. Joe lives with his elderly, ailing mother (Judith Roberts) in New York. This ghost of a man who haunts his own life actually works as a hit-man for a mysterious boss. When we first see Joe, his face is encased inside a plastic bag, a voice bidding him to ‘do better’ [Ramsay’s Ratcatcher also opened with the image of a boy suffocating himself, an obvious metaphor to reflect the characters’ emotional adversity]. There are no flashbacks to explain Joe’s post-traumatic stress in detail. What we get is few subliminal images – images erupting from Joe’s subconscious – that imply irreparable suffering in childhood and peeks into other atrocious things he has committed.

Following the ‘plastic-bag’ visuals, we see Joe in close-ups, cleaning up the things after finishing his brutal assignment. A bloody hammer is wiped off with toilet tissue, photographs are burned, and he slogs down the hotel’s hallway with his shoulders downcast bearing the figurative cross. Joe is dexterous when it comes to delivering violence, and he specializes in rescuing kidnapped or runaway children and returning them to their families. His new job involves a senator who wants to find and rescue his daughter Nina Votto (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a brothel full of underage girls. When Joe sets out to save the girl, the situation escalates and he is caught in broader conspiracy. Director Ramsay keeps the sense of violence floating in the air. Yet we don’t often see the brutal bloody acts; we only discover the shocking mess left in its wake.

Watching Joe moving through the streets in a car, absorbing its atmosphere of seediness, instantly reminds us of Travis Bickle, also about a military vet (Vietnam War) who sets out to rescue a teenage girl from the depths of human depravity. But Joe doesn’t carry out vigilante justice, and unlike Scorsese’s masterpiece, Ramsay’s vision is more intimate and narrow (focusing on the effects of violence on a individual’s psyche). The less talkative Joe shares most of his characteristics with lean, mean hit-men inhabiting Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential crime features. More than Taxi Driver (1976), this film bears the shades of John Boorman’s underappreciated classic Point Blank (1967), a touch of Steven Soderbergh’s cool crime yarn The Limey (1999), and stylistically attunes to Alice Winocour’s Disorder (2015) – also about a bulky ex-soldier (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) with PTSD. And, Joaquin Phoenix’s bewildering performance imbues the narrative with perfect emotional compass. Phoenix’s evocative gestures and eccentricity gives the character the kind of true haunting looks. Considering how the movie is narratively understated, it is important to note how Phoenix brings fine emotional thrust to the proceedings. The actor also instills Joe with innate decency that’s obvious in the sweet banter he carries with his ailing mother, which only later makes his raging inner battles more resonant.

Despite all the influences derived and a masterful performance at the center, director/writer Ramsay’s minimalist yet meditative form and aural-visual textures deserves lot more accolades. Working with cinematographer Thomas Townsend, Ramsay provides us an emotional window to see through Joe's eyes as he navigates his quickly unraveling existence. And, on most occasions we are trapped with in Joe’s head-space that we 'feel' the bad things than actually 'see' it.  Sound designer Paul Davies and Johnny Greenwood’s score deserve special mention as they fill the quiet moments with sublime sounds and tones. Even though the director’s previous film is also about a murderous male, this time she adopts a more hard-edged male perspective. This one is a study of a physically strong man who finds himself to be fallible. He can’t truly save others, or at least save himself, and even falls short of killing himself. But the guy slowly grasps for life through the suffocating burden of trauma. This is expressed in a beautiful surrealistic moment as Joe swims up to the river’s surface. In fact, there are other intriguing moments in the film which makes it more than a remarkable exercise in style. For example, the way Ramsay undercuts brutality by adding unanticipated moment of tenderness: a gruesome face-off between Joe and a hired-gun ends on a strange note of singing, an incredible note of sensitivity and compassion amidst ruthless acts. The plotting does seem too lean and frustratingly fragmentary at times so as to wholly rely on the moments of startling ethereal imagery. Nevertheless, You Were Never Really Here (90 minutes) is a precious little mood piece which intimately studies a traumatized soul’s cracked psyche. 


The Third Murder [2017] – An Impressively Ambiguous and Obscure Courtroom Drama

Author, journalist, and Asia editor of the Times Richard Lloyd Parry’s true-crime book ‘People Who Eat Darkness’ (published in 2010) acutely delineates the peculiarities of the Japanese judiciary system among many other things, which I think helped me better understand the inherent conflicts in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s courtroom drama The Third Murder (Sandome no satsujin, 2017). Central among the facts in Mr. Parry’s book is the conviction rate in criminal trial: 99.8 percent in Japan compared to 70-75 percent in Western courts. This guaranteed conviction rate, over-reliance on defendant’s confession (than physical evidence), defense lawyer’s limited role, and the system’s obsession to judge a crime based on the motive makes The Third Murder a unique legal narrative, far removed from the theatricality of usual courtroom dramas. While the film could be better understood from the Japanese context, it also raises spate of universal questions regarding judiciary’s interest in moral absolutes, the value of a person’s life, and the ultimate intention behind capital punishment.

 Insipid features like True Crime (1999) and The Life of David Gale (2003) campaigns against the use of capital punishment by weaving a narrative that focuses on a wrong (innocent) person getting convicted. Then there are masterful works like Death by Hanging (1968), In Cold Blood (1967), etc where the convicted ones’ criminality is acutely demonstrated, yet we feel conflicted over the nature of state-sanctioned killing. The Third Murder is more elusive than these two types of films, since the possibilities of understanding the truth remains very slim. The film opens with factory worker Misumi (Koji Yakusho) bludgeoning a man to death, alongside a river bank. He later burns the corpse. The next time we see Misumi, he is already behind  bars and has confessed to the crime. It seems to be a open-and-shut case of murder and robbery (the murdered man’s wallet is missing). Subsequently, we learn that Misumi had only just been released from prison, for killing two loan sharks in the 1980s.

Hotshot defense lawyer Shigemori (Masaharu Fukuyama) takes over the case. He and his defense team try to do the impossible: to reduce the imminent death penalty to life in prison. Shigemori comes to know that it was his judge father (now retired), who had sentenced Misumi three decades prior. It is made clear that Shigemori is less interested in truth and boasts no empathy for Misumi, as he is simply concerned with the technicalities and muddled waters of judicial system that could benefit their case. Anyway, Misumi’s testimony couldn’t be relied upon, since his motivations for committing the crime stays elusive. Misumi is vague, non-committal, deliberately tricky, claiming different reasons for why he killed his factory boss. The man’s varying testimonies makes the defense team pursue distinct line of theories, ranging from insurance murder, blackmailing gone wrong, and rage-type murder. At one point, Misumi breaks down and tells he didn’t commit the murder and that the confession was forced out of him. The sheer madness of these constantly shifting stories clutters our moral compass and further showcases the impossibility of perceiving the crime from objective manner. Even Shigemori’s robust facade crumbles and he is caught up amidst multiple facts and emotional quandaries.

Veteran actor Koji Yakusho’s extraordinary performance is what makes this oddly paced drama mostly work. He is forthcoming and calm at times, later effortlessly slipping into menacing, aloof mood. Although there’s an impenetrable vagueness to the nature of Misumi, Yakusho keeps him affable and extracts empathy at the right occasions. Similar to the last minute twists in Primal Fear (1996) or The Usual Suspects (1995), we expect Misumi to surprise us by delivering the ultimate truth that’s not cloaked in ambiguity. But it never happens, as the character remains opaque till the end, the motive behind the crime unknowable forever. This definitely would frustrate viewers who are expecting a murder mystery or at least a 'whydunnit', in the vein of author Keigo Higashino’s tales (The Devotion of Suspect X). Director Hirokazu Koreeda simply uses the hook of a genre set-up to draw attention to the convoluted legal process. He is quite interested in the question of innocence or guilt, and its expressively mutable position among the sea of doubts. The Third Murder does indict the sky-high conviction rate by solely relying on confessions (forced and otherwise), the unpleasant uncertainty in overseeing the criminal trials, and the sordidness of death penalty (hence the title ‘third murder’, indicating the killing sanctioned by the state). However, Mr. Koreeda never proposes his themes and ideas in the form of bland, straight-forward statement. His view is more nuanced. He uses the deeper drama (or conflicts) between the characters to get to his prime motivations and not the other way around.

The Third Murder does suffer from pacing issues as the ever-changing testimony and the meandering exchanges slightly exasperate us. The lively dynamics with which Koreeda often explores the father/daughter or mother/daughter relationship totally lacks here. Shigemori’s strained relationship with his teenage daughter (Aju Makita) is employed to showcase the lawyer’s remote manner in treating the narrative’s other teenage character (Suzu Hirose). But then the exchanges between these characters are so dry and bloodless, compared to the ones from Koreeda’s intimate family dramas. Koreeda’s script and direction gets whole lot better during the increasingly intense conversations between Shigemori and Misumi. Bolstered by the cinematography of Mikiya Takimoto, the series of thought-provoking and layered tableau set in the small, interview room are brilliantly visualized. The two actors are separated by a Plexiglas wall, and this set-up is filmed from distinct angles, providing myriad of character & theme-based insights. Particularly laudable is the blocking of the performers, where the camera often lingers on one side of glass wall, whereas the other’s reflection is magnificently superimposed (both faces filling the screen), emphasizing on the murky nature of the truth. At one occasion, the staging makes the glass wall non-existent, as Shigemori’s role of ‘judging’ and Misumi role of ‘being judged’ dynamically transforms. These clever, deft visual touches impeccably depict Kore-eda’s ability to work outside his comfort zone (away from the haven of family dramas).

The Third Murder (124 minutes) is a cold, meticulously crafted legal drama from a renowned film-maker, known for his warmth-inducing humanist works. Hirokazu Koreeda has tried to fuse his philosophical thoughts and ultra-nuanced characterizations into a quasi-genre set-up. The result is an intriguing crime puzzle, but one that smartly shies away from delivering due emotional catharsis or delicious twists.


Sandome no satsujin (2017) -- IMDb

The Death of Stalin [2017] – A Riveting Black Comedy about Stalinist Russia

Scottish satirist and television director Armando Iannucci is best known for BBC series The Thick of It and HBO series Veep – both a foul-mouthed political farce, which highlights the heights of absurdity in the upper echelons of 10 Downing Street and White House. Subsequently for his second feature film, Mr. Armando has chosen a narcissistic and dangerous political leader as his subject matter. Based on French graphic novel by Fabien Bury and Thierry Robin, the master satirist’s movie makes a mockery out of the rat-race between Soviet dictator Stalin’s cronies, immediately after his death in March 1953. Naturally, many viewers could find an unmissable link between the old political narrative and the contemporary ones in America and Russia (both countries now led by wicked narcissists). The Death of Stalin could be viewed as a cautionary tale; that we can easily commit the very mistake which brutalized different countries in the past. In this era of Erdogan, Putin, and Trump, the ruthless double dealings and battle of egos within Soviet power circle doesn’t seem inconceivable or a thing of the past. However, the impressive thing about ‘The Death of Stalin’ is how it delivers devastating blows upon the political idiocy and Bolshevick inhumaness, while also expertly extracting great laughs from the most solemn situations.

The Czech New Wave film-makers of the 1960s and the Romanian New Wave directors of the 2000s knew how to exhibit the madness of a dysfunctional totalitarian regime. Unlike traditional cinema which took pains to portray the inhumanity of dictatorship, the prominent works from Czech and Romania, mocked at their government’s absurdities. Fighting the sanitized image of a tyrannical regime through ridicule always seems as effective as the collection of all bitter facts in history books. Even when all is said and done about Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Idi Amin, etc people are still haunted by the unfathomable depth of their crimes. Then, the only better solution is to simply laugh at them. Black humor is a better tool to approach these bizarre and scary leaders.  Accordingly, Armando’s pitch black-comedy of Stalinist terrors sort of adds to the unease without diluting the inherent tragedy. Furthermore, the fact that the current culture ministry of Russia decided to ban the film shows how it feels towards people laughing at Stalin.

The Death of Stalin opens with a terrific comic situation that demonstrates the terror and rampant paranoia in Stalin’s regime. The beady eyed dictator (Adrian McLoughlin) disposes off anybody who shows little dissent. Lavantiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the grubby master-executioner (chief of the Soviet Security) sees over the execution of people, detailed in a list approved by Stalin himself. The other important members of the venal and malicious Soviet high command include: Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), the deputy named as Stalin’s successor; nakedly ambitious Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi); Molotov (Michael Palin) who clings to Stalinism so as to even declare his innocent wife a traitor. As Iannucci sets up the nature of these sub-ordinates who operate according to whims and moods of their leader, he also demonstrates the delicate situation of Radio Moscow’s director (Paddy Considine). Stalin unexpectedly phones in and demands a recording of the Mozart piano concerto. The director is alarmed since the live broadcast isn’t recorded. He springs to action and forces the audience to get back into their seats and bribes the pianist (Olga Kurylenko) to play the entire concert again. As the concert is played once more, it is cut to shots of security forces rounding up the citizens in the list; the smaller and bigger harassment of common people happens concurrently. This prologue sequence perfectly evokes the era and sets the tone for consequent farcical happenings.

Soon, Stalin gets defeated by death. He is discovered in a puddle of his own piss and each of his savvy and cruel political operators compete for the highest position inside the Kremlin. They all know that the leader’s death will only escalate the atmosphere of treachery and political backstabbing. For now, Malenkov takes the temporary position as the head of state, although he is an ineffectual, image-obsessed clown. Beria hopes to wield supreme power by exploiting Malenkov’s inefficiency, while Khrushchev is eager to sway the military and other committee members to his side. Meanwhile, Stalin’s alcoholic, mentally unstable son Vasily (Rupert Friend) and grief-stricken daughter Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) try to figure out their fate in this crazily authoritarian climate. Riddled with hilarious verbal face-offs, Iannucci depicts how power vacuum amps up the ridiculous and vicious nature of politicians. Nevertheless, the relentless gags settle down at some point and the narrative slowly reaches for a chilling conclusion. Eventually it delivers a fierce gut punch, and this distinct perspective on the hypocrisy of political leaders perfectly resonates across broader political spectrum.  

Iannucci and his co-writers David Schneider, Ian Martin marvelously builds up the silliness and horror-show of Stalinism, while also flawlessly extracting the utter madness in each scenario. The real events after Stalin’s death is a bit exaggerated and facts are slightly blemished. Nevertheless, Iannucci instills fine emotional truth to the proceedings, something which even the well-researched historical documents fail to deliver. There’s priceless quality to the morbidly amusing, insult-laden dialogues and the actors articulating those words makes it further great. Of course, the film’s biggest treat is its glorious ensemble cast. The inclusion of Monty Python’s Michael Palin to play Molotov and Jason Isaacs as the macho war hero Zhukov is the masterstroke in casting process. Steve Buscemi is at his usual best, adding a lot to the bleak image of the real historical figure. The ultimate success of the movie lies in its balance between the comedy and horrific tragedy, and in knowing which is which. It guides us into the depths of hell through the funny scenario. And, when the laughs dry up the sense of terror slowly sinks in. We contemplate on how these crazy things really happened and that we are always just one bad leader or one vile administration away from embracing the same historical mistake.


The Death of Stalin (2017) -- IMDb