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‘You Were Never Really Here,’ ‘The Rider’ Reviews

Searching for purpose

You Were Never Really Here, the latest from Scottish director Lynne Ramsay, is an occasionally frustrating, evasive picture. That evasiveness is best captured in a scene toward the end of the first act, when Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) stalks through a New York apartment building that has been converted into a brothel filled with underage girls, taking a ball-peen hammer to those who operate, and those who frequent, the joint.

We cut from Ramsay's camera, which has faithfully followed Joe thus far through the film, to a series of surveillance cameras in the multi-story building. They are positioned in hallways and the stairwell; she uses them to give us a lay of the land. When Joe's rampage begins, she does not take us smoothly through his movements; instead, she cuts to the end of the action, often taking place on the edge of the frame, as if we are just seeing movement in the corner of our eyes but are too slow to see the whole thing go down.

It's an interesting sequence, one that feels similar to action we've seen before yet comes across differently via Ramsay's decision to withhold the violence from us. And it fits thematically with the life of the protagonist, Joe, a veteran of one sort or another whose history of service and childhood abuse we see in flits and flickers, just enough to know how he is broken on the inside—and why, by film's end, he probably cannot be fixed.

But the evasiveness at the heart of You Were Never Really Here—the hopping between tenses and times, the refusal to linger on motivations—is a bit wearying. Ramsay used all these tricks more effectively in We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film that showed us the emotional wreckage of a mass killing at a school before walking us up to the event itself. That movie horrified but never bludgeoned, as the sound design and score for You Were Never Really Here sometimes does, Jonny Greenwood's electronic score overlapping street noise and other ambient sounds in an oft-oppressive way.

Phoenix is solid as Joe—solidly built, solidly muscled, solidly follicled. Phoenix's giant, bushy beard immediately calls to mind late-model Mel Gibson (as does the movie's plot, which involves saving the daughter of a state senator from sex slavery and unraveling the mystery of how she wound up there), though Phoenix's eyes are a bit less wide-eyed and crazy than Mel's, his manner alternating more naturally from herky-jerky violence to clean calm. You Were Never Really Here doesn't quite work for me—it's all style, and not one I really care for—but it is certainly worth watching once it hits streaming services for Phoenix's performance alone.

The Rider

The Rider is a bit like The Wrestler if The Wrestler were focused on cowboys and rodeo riders.

Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau) rode bucking broncos eight seconds at a time until one of those horses stomped on his head, necessitating a metal plate that makes rodeo riding too dangerous. He lives at home with his drunk of a dad, Tim (Wayne Jandreau), and his mentally disabled sister, Lilly (Lilly Jandreau). They exist on the edge of disaster: Tim hasn't made payments on the Blackburn trailer for months, and Brady's unable to make money doing what he does best, training horses.

Director Chloe Zhao does an admirable job of introducing us to the rodeo world without being didactic about it. We simply see these people living their lives: strumming guitars by a fireside, coaxing horses under control, throwing back beers in a local watering hole. The world she builds feels tangible and lived-in, the wide expanse of the plains contrasting sharply with the cramped expectations of a guy whose friends think he should rub some dirt on it—"it" being a brain injury and a papier-mâché skull—and get back in the saddle, lest he be thought of as less of a man.

The Jandreaus bring a realism and roughness to their roles that might have been lacking with more refined actors, but it comes with a cost: while their work with horses and their overall look on the plains is strong, when it comes time to emote or to work through difficult line readings, the effect feels amateurish. Which is fine, in a way, since they are amateurs. But it holds back an otherwise estimable film.

Like Mickey Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson, Brady is forced from his preferred mode of making ends meet by a medical issue. Like Randy, Brady is forced to stock shelves at a supermarket, seeing folks who knew him from his glory days. Like Randy, Brady has some awkward family dynamics that cause him to look for happiness in a job that will kill him rather than sticking around those who love him. The only real question is whether Brady can be unlike Randy in his effort to find a reason to keep going after his purpose has been taken from him.