You Were Never Really Here
Produced by Why Not Productions and the British Film Institute
Directed and written by Lynne Ramsay,
based on Jonathan Ames’s novel
Distributed by Amazon Studios 

Produced by BRON Studios 
Directed by Jason Reitman 
Screenplay by Diablo Cody 
Distributed by Focus Features 

This month we have two—you’ll excuse the expression—art-house films: You Were Really Never Here and Tully.  Both feature actors—Joaquin Phoenix and Charlize Theron—who heroically gained 50 pounds to play their roles.  Why is it, I wonder, that when actors choose to lard up, it’s always 50 pounds?  Whatever the answer, I’m afraid the extra weight doesn’t do much for either film’s gravitas.

Never Here is a ridiculously pretentious film adapted from Jonathan Ames’s crime novella crafted in the hard-boiled school of fiction.  Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has used this text to make a film of relentless close-ups, most celebrating blood and gore.  Joe, the protagonist played by Phoenix, is a former Marine and FBI agent who sells his services to clients who are trying to retrieve their daughters from the pedophile end of the prostitution industry.  On his missions, Joe favors the use of a ball-peen hammer to bludgeon the miscreants he comes upon.  His success in his occupation has made him the go-to guy for desperate parents.  When we meet him he’s flying back to New York City after having rescued a girl in Cincinnati.  You know at a glance he’s a formidable character (perhaps monster would be the more accurate word).  He wears a mountain-man beard that covers most of his morose face.  His deep-set eyes seem ever-simmering with disgust for the seamy world in which he’s chosen to practice his trade.  He wears a hooded sweatshirt pulled down over his swollen body.  At a glance, you know that this guy is damaged and means business.  He lumbers through the city’s streets peering at the world as if from his own portable bunker.  He’s a man you’d rather not meet.

And yet Joe, for all his ominous lurching, has a warm, even cuddly side.  He lives with his daft invalid mother (Judith Roberts) with whom he has a poignant relationship founded on their shared abuse.  Decades ago, Joe’s father, it seems, had made a practice of beating his mother and himself.  I say “seems” since there’s precious little visual evidence of this.  It’s gestured at with staccato images from what seems to have been Joe’s childhood.  I have no idea why Ramsay chose to be enigmatic on this point.  It doesn’t help her film at all.  I found it quite irritating.  Whereas Ames is explicit about his narrative’s depravity, Ramsay has swathed it over with a mannered indirection.  To be sure, she gives us heavy doses of ultraviolence courtesy of Joe’s ball-peen, but they often don’t seem to make much narrative sense, nor do they have any human resonance.  The men who fall prey to Joe are generally anonymous thugs who barely register on our consciousness before the hammer puts them to sleep, often permanently.

But on with the plot, or what I could make of it in its fractured telling.

State senator Albert Votto (Alex Manette) hires Joe to retrieve his 13-year-old daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), from a prostitution ring that kidnapped her a week earlier and placed her in an upscale brothel operating out of a Manhattan townhouse.  This doesn’t make sense.  If money was the motive, wouldn’t the abductors prefer putting the girl up for ransom?  What’s more, they’ve made the preposterous error of giving the senator’s retainers their operation’s address.  You would think they would shy from a target so connected to powerful people and their law-enforcement resources.  Ramsay doesn’t bother to explain their stupidity.  You would further think that Joe, being accustomed to dealing with such vermin, might become suspicious that there’s more to the story than he’s been told, which, of course, there is.  Much more, although that more is left frustratingly vague.

Instead of probing this mystery, Joe stakes out the townhouse until he has the opportunity to enter it with his trusty ball-peen.  Here we get to see Joe put his weapon of choice to admirable use bludgeoning pimps, thugs, and a host of clients as he bulls his way to the room in which Nina is being kept.  After rescuing the girl, he takes her back to the hotel where he’s agreed to return her to her father’s agents.  Upon arrival, however, several policemen attack him, take the girl away, and then try to kill Joe.  What’s going on?  I might be able to tell you by resorting to the novella, but the text and the film aren’t on the same track.  While Ames provides details and motivation, however ludicrous, Ramsay favors withholding information.  Maybe she thought this would be more evocative.

Despite his grisly trade and his ugly memories, Joe has his light side.  When at home with his mom, he dotes on her needs, including putting her to bed and, at her request, lying down with her to join her in a rendition of the 1948 popular song “‘A,’ You’re Adorable.”  Charming, to be sure, but also, I imagine, puzzling for most of the audience.  I can’t think of anyone younger than 70 who can recall this ditty today.  As for Joe’s filial devotion, it pales beside Jimmy Cagney’s in Raoul Walsh’s White Heat.  This film had Cagney’s tortured gangster climbing into his mom’s lap for solace when things became too overwhelming.  With his patented lunatic energy, Cagney managed to put this over, but Phoenix is much too glum to convince us he’s “‘C,’ . . . a cutie full of charms.”

Ramsay’s dramatization is so consistently careless that we begin not to care about the story’s characters.  For instance, Votto is somehow involved with the state’s governor re-election campaign.  The actors playing the roles, however, are so similar in appearance that you can’t be sure who’s who.  And there are the several blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shots showing a 10-year-old boy breathing into a plastic bag evidently trying to asphyxiate himself.  The boy must be Joe but nothing confirms this.  All we know is that the grown Joe who harbors suicidal tendencies indulges in the same practice.  In another snippet, we see a pair of legs in red pants.  The owner of these appendages seems to be trying to dig his feet into a sandy terrain.  Are they Joe’s legs?  Elsewhere we glimpse Jim open a truck filled with dead girls who were apparently immigrants being transported to—where?  In another scene a woman in her 30’s lies under a table with her finger at her lips to signal to a boy, again presumably Joe, the need for silence.

Well, if it’s not really difficult to piece this together, still it seemed to me an annoying affectation.  It’s as if Ramsay is saying, “Look at how psychologically clever I’m being.”  To tell the truth, I’m not interested in her cleverness.  Underneath all the flourishes, this is a simple enough—not to say simpleminded—narrative.  Why not tell it plain?  I recommend having a calculator at your side while watching.  That way you’ll be able to amuse yourself by counting the clubbed.  You’ll not get much satisfaction from anything else in this film unless, of course, you hanker for beatings and bleedings.  By the way, the title is misleading.  Bloated Joe and his deadly madness were bloody well here.

Now let’s turn to our other tubby protagonist, Marlo Moreau (Charlize Theron) in Tully.  She’s the seriously exhausted mother of two children who’s about to give birth to her third.  The film begins with montages of late pregnancy’s manifold trials.  Theron, huge with child, moves about her modest suburban ranch in a haze, her robe spattered with breakfast food as she prepares to drive her children to school.  If you’ve had young ones, you’ll sympathize.

The film is written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the team that made Young Adult (2011) and Juno (2007).  In Tully, Cody considers the consequences of giving birth and raising children but somehow she and Reitman haven’t quite managed the magic they achieved in Young Adult.

This film focuses on the indignities that pregnancy and birth can visit upon a woman, however devoted she is to child-rearing.  In one scene, we watch Marlo still recovering from giving birth.  She’s sitting on a commode as a nurse hectors her to urinate more lavishly.  Later at home, she must contend with her well-meaning but clueless hubby.  Rather than tending to her needs, he prefers to indulge his video-game habit.  Not long after the dinner she’s prepared, he retreats to their bedroom where he digitally kills zombies on his television.  But don’t misunderstand.  He’s thoughtful about it.  He wears earphones so as not to disturb Marlo.  When she wonders out loud whether he might tend to the baby more than he does, he merely smiles as he points out that since he doesn’t have breasts he’s not much use in feeding the little one.  Marlo is not amused.

The worry, exhaustion, and depression—those postpartum blues—that come with childbirth are made vivid in a manner seldom if ever presented on-screen.  Marlo’s wealthy brother decides to come to her rescue.  He pays for a night nurse to help out.  She’s the Tully of the title, a sprightly, competent 26-year-old who is determined to provide Marlo the relief she needs.  She cares not only for the baby but for the other children as well.  And she puts Marlo to bed as early as possible.  She even bakes cupcakes to cheer up the household.  Soon Marlo finds she’s formed a genuine friendship with her savior.

What doesn’t work so well is the sequence in which Tully talks Marlo into the necessity of recharging husband Drew’s “batteries.”  This, she says, will entail giving him some sexual attention, and she’s ready to assist in the process.  All things are possible, of course, but I don’t think I know of a single instance of this method working to the betterment of families.  Or, to speak honestly, being tried in the first place, although who knows what other folk are getting up to.  Prude that I am, I found this sequence offensive, at least initially.  The episode was subsequently put into a different register altogether by a surprise plot turn that I’m bound not to reveal here.

One of the film’s better inspirations comes in two scenes in which we watch a tiny fish-like creature swimming in the middle of the screen through hazy water.  The first seems to be an in utero image from a sonogram.  In the second, Tully appears as a mermaid swimming to Marlo’s rescue.  This envisions what’s at the film’s core: the hope and fear childbirth bestows on a mother and her consequent need for rescue once her baby has arrived.  I don’t know of another film that portrays this transition quite as compellingly.