Another film I’ve been putting off watching, I overlooked it at the time of release as I really wasn’t interested in You Were Neve Really Here (2017). Since then I’ve been slowly won over and wanted to track down the film, learning it was another Taxi Driver (1976), which in essence is The Searchers (1956). So once again I will be delving into how this film responds to the classic Western. It’s a chance to explore how the film has again influenced modern cinema. Of course on the surface it has far more in common with Martin Scorsese’s film than John Ford‘s original. The classic tale of the tortured male loner taking on the task of rescuing a young woman from the clutches of a sex-slavery i Cincinnati. I wonder is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) still drives the murky streets still, had he come into contact with Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) or would that have been too explosive for a single film to handle.
It’s doesn’t stray far from John Wayne‘s Ethan Edward’s epic mission across untamed Native American country in search of his nieces. Filled with an uncontrollable racial hatred for the Comanches and possibly other nations who have done him wrong before we first meet him. We don’t learn of his past, or even Bickle’s we’re just allowed to spend a short time with them. Lynne Ramsay‘s allowed us understand Joe’s past in a series of fractured flashbacks that hint an unstable domestic upbringing and time in the army. It’s been explored before with Travis Henderson (Harry Dean Stanton) who was far more reflexive about his past, Wim Wenders gave us the time to explore just how he’s in his position now, a father who couldn’t face the break up of a passionate relationship, which ultimately was his own fault in Paris Texas (1984). Travis is singularly unique, a disturbed man shaped by his surroundings, unable to connect with the outside world that deeply troubles him. An explorer of an urban jungle that holds him hostage.
Joe is very much a product of his child hood and military service that have shaped the beaten shell of a man who works as a hired gun. He doesn’t shy away from how he makes his living, it defines him, just about the only job he can get, allowing him to function and support his mum. We first meet him at the end of a job, clearing up the evidence that could lead back to him. You can he’s done this many times before, it’s just part of the job. His face is obscured during this time, for now he’s just an unknown dangerous man cleaning up yet another mess with precision that he has honed overtime. This is not the have-a-go hero of Taxi Driver or the ex-Confederate soldier, we have a trained killer on yet another job, not a man to be messed about.
We learn he has something of a soft-side when he returns home to his mother (Judith Roberts) who he shares a love-hate relationship with, the only woman or even person who really loves him. The closest to violence he get’s with her is a joke about Psycho (1960), could that even be an influence on him. The stay at home son with his mother who stays about of obligation more than love.
The rescue mission comes pretty early on in this fairly compact film, his next job at the request of Senato Albert Votto (Alex Manette) who employs him to rescue his young daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), whom he believes has been kidnapped and placed into a sex-slavery. Unlike Ethan Edwards and Travis Bickle he has no prior relationship with the girl whose to be rescued, he only sees her as part of another job. Before he begin we see him stock up on fresh tools for the job, including a hammer that we know already is his weapon of choice that can inflict brutal damage to his victims, no one stands a chance against him.
As with Taxi Driver he waits until night before he even rolls up outside the address, he’s dangerously cool and calm about all this, dragging over a guy who works, torturing him for information, the bare-essentials to get in, the dangers that lie ahead for him. It’s a cleaner rescue than I expected, restrained by the view of CCTV cameras that only suggest what has happened to the bodyguards who fall to their deaths. It’s over before we know it, our main concern is finding the girl, which again happens rather fast. The young girl – Nina is clearly in state of desensitisation, to escape the daily abuse she receives from the monsters who pay for her. Gone is the confident nonchalance of Jodie Foster’s Iris who has find an exterior shell to survive the murky world of prostitution she’s trapped in. Mirroring the assimilation that Debbie Edwards (Natalie Wood) whilst living with the Comanche. Never Really Here is more aware of the psychological damage that a kidnapping and slavery can do to the mind. The realisation of being rescued doesn’t quite hit Nina for sometime.
Everything then starts to go wrong for Joe as he soon loses the girl and ends up a world that all he knew and understood is being taken away from him. The closet he got to purity is taken away by corrupt cops who take Nina away, leading him into a trap that closes ever tighter into his inner circle and even his mother. The hard exterior of the hired gun begins to show signs of cracking. Before we see an even darker side when interrogates one of his mothers killers (Scott Price) sadistically numbing his pain to get information from him before he finally dies. It’s a form of unique justice that allows him to move on in search of Nina and understand what he’s become embroiled in.
It’s far more complicated than the standard search and rescue narrative that Ford laid out over 50 years ago, becoming something more complicated with each retelling of the basic plot. Stripping away the racial hatred to leave a hardened killer who has many dents in his armour, both physical and mental. We’re left a darker of corruption with a glimmer of hope for Joe and Nina, each products of their fractured lives, leaving to start a life together where they might be able to start over. All they have known has been destroyed either by their own hands or in their wake. It’s a bleak disturbing world where even beauty has a dark side. Never Really Here is by far one of the bleakest interpretations of The Searchers, having evolved into a the Western that it could have been. I wonder if a director has the courage to deliver something so disturbing to the screen?