With you Were Never Really Here just out of U.K. cinemas, we though we’d take the opportunity to look at our countrywoman’s career. Join us as we also discuss Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin, and also her short films. Listen in! That’s certainly a thing you could do.
From Ratcatcher’s opening we’re in no doubt that this is not your typical sentimental, wistful paean for a lost childhood: a boy wraps himself in a net curtain and he, and we, are sharply brought to our senses when he receives a smack around the head and an admonition not to ruin his mother’s curtains.
During the Glasgow dustmen strike of 1973 bags of refuse build up on the streets and backyards of a council estate. Children play amongst, and with, the rat-infested rubbish, as well as in the filthy canal nearby. In the canal two adolescent boys play, until one of the boys disappears beneath the water, and doesn’t return. While it is a tragic accident, the surviving boy, James Gillespie (William Eadie) could have and should have done more to help his friend. Instead, he flees, but he is never allowed to escape the tragedy, either in his private thoughts, or, for example, when the boy’s grief-stricken mother desperately hugs him to remind her of her dead son, or gifts James the new shoes she bought her son on the day of his death.
Ratcatcher is seen mostly from James’ perspective; he’s a loner who tries to create his own entertainment when and where he can, while trying to avoid the pitfalls of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, like being unfortunate enough to simply be around when a teenage gang is bored and looking for amusement; or being on the wrong side of his father who is mean when drunk.
He has his first physical experiences with girls in the form of the much older Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a rather sad, bullied young woman who no doubt would cruelly have been referred to as the neighbourhood bicycle, but who clearly uses sex as her own way to survive in this hard place.
In many ways James is still very much a child, though, and Ramsay, who also wrote the screenplay, does a good job of portraying James’ patchy and incomplete understanding of the world around him. The director’s less narrative-driven, more impressionistic style evokes a strong sense of time and place, which, in comparison to films we’ll come to later, works particularly well with this subject matter, which is far more about experience and feeling than it is about plot.
She’s aided in her portrayal of this era and setting by some great acting (including her own daughter as James’ younger sister) though William Eadie may be too good at being cold-eyed and detached as James himself is a pretty unlikeable character, though this may well be intentional.
Ratcatcher is an ugly film. A bleak film. And, also, an authentic film that in many of its characters and situations rings true, in an almost documentarian way. But it also contains sparks of humour, of hope and of the irrepressible spirit of children. A slice of life film shorn of sentimentality (though not entirely of tenderness), it’s not an easy or particularly enjoyable watch, but it is rewarding enough for me to recommend checking it out, even if admittedly it’s far from a wholehearted recommendation.
When Samantha Morton’s Morvern Callar wakes up on the lounge floor next to the body of her author boyfriend, she finds his computer beckoning her to read his suicide note. In it he expresses his love for Morvern, the determination that slitting his wrists while she slept “seemed like the right thing to do,” and that she is to submit his completed manuscript to a number of publishers and use the money he has left in his bank account to pay for his funeral.
Morvern instead decides to aimlessly hang around an empty train station, pop a pill and go out drunkenly partying with her friend, reveal herself to a passing fishing boat and sleep with a complete stranger. Then, after a couple of days of working around her boyfriend’s body, she chops it up in the bath while listening to a mixtape he left her, buries the remains in a remote, shallow grave, edits the manuscript to name herself the author, and uses the burial money to pay for a party holiday in Ibiza.
Now, we all deal with grief in different ways, but what I’m saying is that I found it very difficult to sympathise with Morvern as the protagonist in a story that deals with…well, I don’t really know what it deals with, to be honest, so I guess that means I just don’t buy Morvern as a protagonist. But I’ll come back to that in a minute.
There is actually a good deal to appreciate about Morvern Callar. Everything about the movie is steeped in economy, beginning with Ramsay’s direction which, separated from the script, I like very much. There is a confidence in the way she allows the story to run its course which speaks to an experience beyond a typical sophomore filmmaker, and her trust in Morton and the rest of the cast, whom I understand to have been largely if not entirely untrained, is obvious. There is a maturity here which makes me marvel at how infrequently Ramsay has worked, yet also glad she hasn’t felt the need to keep pace with industry expectation. Here is a director I want to see only when they are good and ready to say something, even if I’m baffled by their message.
The movie is likewise shot with a refreshing lack of visual verbosity by Alwin Kuchler; Ratcatcher alumni and a name with which I was not familiar, therefore forcing me to kick myself when I discovered he worked with Danny Boyle on Sunshine. Outwith the confines of city and town centres Scotland is a frequently blunt and miserable array of matter which, admittedly stunning mountainscapes and coastlines aside, often presents itself in the guise of mud, heather and grass-covered tilty bits interspersed with broad strokes of ill-maintained tarmac we call “roads”. All you need know about Kuchler’s work here is that he does some of those justice.
In terms of performances Morton is a wonderful choice for the role because she is as close to a flawless actress as I believe England may have produced, and she is blessed with that ability to say as much if not more with her expressions when silent as when emoting at full tilt. Not that there will be much in the way of tilting here, you understand, as that economy I mentioned extends with prevalence to the writing of Morvern who is as enigmatic if not engaging a protagonist as I ever may have encountered in film.
And this is the crux of my issue with the movie. As engaging as Morton is, and even though her abilities seem to come from the cosmic ether, unlike that vacuum of potential energy from which I believe she is born even she cannot be expected to manifest something from less than nothing. If Morvern is experiencing some sort of inner anguish at the death of her lover, some existential turmoil or critical metamorphosis then I as the viewer am not to know of it. We know nothing of Morvern’s life; her relationship is perhaps implied to have been an emotionally and/or intellectually inequal one, but I base that solely on my assumed verbosity of the deceased and Morvern’s borderline mute presence at her menial job in a supermarket. I suppose I must also assume that statistically speaking her boyfriend is unlikely to have shared her proclivity for dismemberment, so that could probably be considered an inequality too.
I am all for enigmas, especially human ones, and a lot of the performances I’ve appreciated through the years have been those where an actor’s eyes have said more than their pie hole, but I can only reasonably be expected to engage with that enigma if their reasoning, history and impetus are not all completely internalised to the point of nothingness. I find myself infuriated by the talent so clearly evident in virtually every other aspect of Morvern Callar; it’s like being handed a note by some mysterious figure who says “read this – your life and the lives of your family depend on it!” only to find out it’s been written in invisible ink.
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that this is the only film in which I’ve seen Samantha Morton where she hasn’t engaged me. I trust you implicitly, Samantha, I really do, and I’m willing to accept that it may well be me, not you, but this just isn’t for me. There are plenty of people who claim Morvern is a compelling character – I know because I’ve spent a good deal of my free time today desperately reading through IMDB user reviews in the hope of unearthing some truth about her, if not perhaps my own intellectual and emotional shortcomings which I can only presume to be the reason for my failure to grasp her. To those people all I can say is this: “WHAT IS YOUR EVIDENCE?”
Can you tell I’m frustrated? I desperately want to like Morvern Callar as, on a level of craftmanship, it has considerable chops, and I find myself comparing it favourably to great British low budget works of atmosphere of recent years such as Dead Man’s Shoes. I just don’t know what it is I’m buying here, and it’s driving me nuts.
There’s a really quick capsule summary of We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s plot that really underplays everything in it, and also the way that the film’s structured. In the spirit of its aggressive non-linearity, I’d intended to similarly structure this recap. However, it’s been an exhausting week, in an apparently endless series of exhausting weeks, so let’s go with clarity over cleverness.
To Tilda Swinton’s Eva Khatchadourian and John C. Reilly’s Franklin, a child, Damien. Wait, no, Kevin. Kevin appears to learn the joys of gaslighting at an early age, being an insufferable jackass to Eva whenever Franklin’s not around, and sweetness and light when he is. Kevin, played by Ezra Miller once he reaches the “difficult” teenage years, which is a bit of an understatement in this film, shows signs of having something very wrong with him from his youth.
That’s something that Eva continually revisits in the movie’s present, where she finds her situation markedly worse than in the flashbacks. I’m dancing around what might be considered a spoiler here, but it’s a seven year old film at this point, so, well, consider yourself warned. She’s now the town pariah, and also suffering from post-traumatic stress after, final warning, Kevin’s interest in archery graduates into a school mass murder.
Much of the film is a character study in survivor’s guilt, but as much as it’s treating that seriously there’s an element of the unreliable narrator in here. I say this, because Eva’s remembrance of Kevin’s behaviour is much closer to coming out of The Omen than seems entirely reasonable.
Perhaps I’ll open that up to the floor, but in the interest of clearing my opinions out of the way, I like this film a lot. It’s the best performance, I think, I’ve seen Tilda Swinton give, and Ezra Miller’s worryingly convincing as a sociopath. This level of non-linearity often annoys me in film because it’s frequently a transparent distraction from a weak narrative, but it’s really effectively deployed here and makes Swinton’s character all the more sympathetic.
Ramsey’s visuals haven’t exactly been weak in her previous films, but the higher budget of this Hollywood outing allows for a glossiness that wasn’t there before, certainly in the probably embellished memories of happier moments with John C. Reilly, who’s underuse would perhaps be my only issue with the film, but, then, it’s not about his character, so it’s not really. I just always want to see more John C. Reilly. Hollywood, sort it out.
Approved. Do watch.
While I have, admittedly, done it before, on more than one occasion, I try to avoid describing a film in terms of “it’s X meets Y” or “it’s a cross between A and B”, as it can be reductive and potentially dismissive. There are times, though, when describing a film thusly is a useful shorthand, and so it is with You Were Never Really Here, which is a cross between Taken and The Equalizer but with a more arthouse bent.
Ex-Marine Joe (mumbled by Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner, his only meaningful relationship with another human being with his elderly mother. He is plagued by images of a violent past, both in his childhood and in his military career, and he seems to find catharsis, of a sort, as well as earning his living, in taking contracts to rescue young girls who have been taken into the sex trade; contracts he carries out with efficiency, brutality and a hammer.
When asked to rescue his daughter by a New York State Senator, who says he can’t go to the police because of “mumble mumble”, things go very badly wrong in a plot straight out of a thousand airport novels and sixth seasons of police procedural TV series. Can you say “cliché”?
Bizarrely this film was in contention for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and has been compared repeatedly, and favourably, to Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, presumably by people who’ve never actually seen Taxi Driver. OK, maybe that’s not fair – there are some parallels, but little comparison. I described this earlier as “a cross between Taken and The Equalizer but with a more arthouse bent”, which in this case means “with all of the action removed, and anything that would make this in any way fun”, though one thing all of these films have in common, of course, is male heroism predicated on saving women in distress.
I had high hopes for the notably not a man Lynne Ramsay bringing a new, different perspective to this genre, but those hopes were, sadly, dashed. The sequels can be forgotten, but Taken was a successful high concept action film, with pleasingly crunchy fight scenes and the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys who force young women into slavery, and their customers, getting their comeuppance. While it may pretend otherwise, You Were Never Really Here is largely the same film, but eschewing most of the action for an exploration of the psyche of the man delivering said comeuppance.
Now, to be fair, even with her limited feature work, I think we’ve established by this point in the podcast that Lynne Ramsay cares little, if anything, for narrative, preferring to focus more on mood, emotion and psychology, and that’s fine, even if personally I crave narrative satisfaction. But for a film to focus on those things they have to be there, and they’re just not. There’s nothing to this. It’s undeniably well-made, and while Joaquin Phoenix receiving acting awards for this seems undeserved, his performance is leagues beyond, for instance, Leonardo Di Caprio in The Revenant: Phoenix conveys Joe’s anguish and the torment of his abusive upbringing and traumatic military service, and… well, that’s about it.
Jonny Greenwood’s score, so often a highlight, doesn’t feel so much out of place here as squandered, deserving of something of more substance, as is Phoenix’s performance, though his is, his mother (Judith Roberts) aside, more or less the only performance. The title You Were Never Really Here is clearly meant to be a comment on Joe, but actually Joe is the only thing that is there, and it’s everything else that isn’t really here.
We’ve not discussed short films much on here. The reason, at least personally, we’ve not done so is that I tend not to get an awful lot of joy out of short films, regardless of quality. I likes my narratives, me, and the very shortness of short films tends to limit that aspect. So, often they feel like showreels to me, for various aspects of production. Which is fine, but not my cup of tea.
Ramsay has released four short features over her career, and while they’re all pretty good in one regard or another, I’m not sure it’s had much of an effect on my opinion of shorts in general. It does, however, track quite well with her progression as a filmmaker, so I think there’s interest in that if you like her films, or indeed film in general.
All of these are available, perhaps not entirely legally, on YouTube, but as I think it’s only ever been possible to buy one of these on a now out-of-print DVD, I’m not going to get too hung up about directing y’all in that, er, direction.
The earliest, Small Deaths, is a selection of flashbacks to various moments in a young girl’s life – the moments of embarrassment or humiliation that burn into your mind even as the rational part of you knows that, most likely, no-one else on the planet either remembers or cares about them. Quite well observed and executed, and well worth a look. Particularly if you want to train yourself on the deployment of the Glasgow dialect to obscure communication. It’s a little known fact that during World War 2, the Allied forces secured their voice comms from snooping by having only weegies as radio operators.
Gasman continues looking at Glasgow youth, also feeling like it could be autobiographical. Two kids are sent with their dad to a Christmas party, on the way meeting a woman and her kids that also seem strangely familiar with their dad. Again, well observed, but other than moments of sympathy I didn’t get all that much from it. I think my problem with most of these (and good shorts in general) is that I’m left wanting more from it, to know the characters better. And well, then it’s a feature, so that’s me out of luck. These two came before her first feature, Ratcatcher, so if they were demo reels to secure that, job done, I guess.
That continues into Kill the Day, released between Ratcatcher and Morvern Callar. It’s a whistlestop tour of a drug addict’s life, bouncing about with We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s non-linearity through James Gallagher (James Ramsay)’s early life, drug addiction, incarceration for theft, and attempt to go straight. Again, I don’t think there’s anything I dislike about it, apart from wishing that it was more fleshed out with a longer running time. I don’t think this story could be told better given the time limitation, so in that regard I respect it, but again, there’s not enough there to truly satisfy me.
Her latest short, Swimmer, shares a few things with her latest film, primarily that it has moved the slider all the way up to “style” at the expense of “substance”. It’s beautifully shot in ultra contrasty black and white, but there’s no cohesive narrative to speak of at all in it. A bloke swims down a river, and increasingly odd things happen with little rhyme or reason. It’s my least favourite of her works, but even with that said it looks good enough, and is short enough, that it’s almost worth watching just to enjoy the visuals. However, not much to take from it apart from that.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
In particular thank to Stephen Nelson, @scotsactor on Twitter for these words on You Were Never Really Here:
“There are few arthouse films that I’ll go out of my way to see at the cinema. I have to feel a strong inclination that my expectations, rather than my patience, will be exceeded. The last time I rolled the dice on a subversive genre flick was when I saw The Lobster back in 2016. A movie not to everyone’s taste but I got a kick out of its heartfelt cynicism on the direction of postmodern dating culture. But I digress…
YWNRH offers the irresistible pairing of two cinematic talents who have both forged distinctive and underappreciated careers. Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix prove to be the perfect pairing to dig at the dirty and disturbing underbelly of the clichéd hitman revenge tale. It is a refreshing counterpoint to the bombastic Taken and Equalizer franchises.
From the outset I was engrossed in the psychological routine of our protagonist’s blunt and clinical approach to his very particular line of work. Joe, a military and law enforcement veteran with PTSD, specializes in tracking down missing girls who have fallen into the bleak and shrouded world of sex trafficking. The eery and pulsating score from Jonny Greenwood combined with fragmented scenes of violence, from both the present and past, give an emotional weight to our anti-hero’s viewpoint the likes of which I haven’t felt so keenly since encountering Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. We become sympathetic to his motivations without being fully exposed to the disturbing hardships which have molded him into a simultaneously powerful and vulnerable man. Joe is a tortured soul who does not seem to enjoy his cloistered life but he purposefully submits himself to help the vulnerable women who he is attached to.
Lynne Ramsay has crafted a visceral and poignant film which deeply affected me. This is less a thriller and more a character study of someone who is emotionally swamped by violence yet still seeks redemption in tender kindness. These stark contrasts are unsettling, engrossing and compelling to witness.”
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues discussed today, please hit us up on Twitter (@fudsonfilm), on Facebook (facebook.com/fudsonfilm), or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to receive our podcast on a regular basis, please add our feed to your podcasting software of choice, or subscribe on iTunes. If you could see your way clear to leaving a review on iTunes, we’d be eternally grateful, but we won’t blame you if you don’t. We’ll be back with you on the 10th with a rockin’ good time, but until then, take care of yourself, and each other.