Vigilante Virtuoso: Lynne Ramsay's 'You Were Never Really Here' stars Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled killer

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Joaquin Phoenix stars in You Were Never Really Here, a brutal, kick-ass actioner in which a hammer-wielding fixer busts his way through a sex-trafficking ring in order to rescue the teenage daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) of a political rising star.

Scratch that.

Joaquin Phoenix stars in You Were Never Really Here, a character study of a traumatized veteran still suffering the psychological aftershocks of an abusive childhood. A job gone wrong places Joe face-to-face with the ever-widening cracks in his own damaged psyche.

However audiences interpret You Were Never Really Here is fine with director Lynne Ramsay, who also adapted the Jonathan Ames novella on which the film is based. “The thing that’s interesting to me about this film is that there will be so many different interpretations. It is an action movie, in a way, where the action is skewed on its head,” notes the writer-director in her heavy Glaswegian accent. “You always get typecast by your last movie,” in this case 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. “But I always try to make a different movie every time. I was just excited to make this film about masculinity.”

(There is one label, applied by some to You Were Never Really Here, that Ramsay bristles at: “guys’ film.” “Like you’re not meant to make it as a woman! Women can’t make these films, I guess. ‘Guys’ film.’ What the fuck does that mean?”)

Whatever genre you want to ascribe to You Were Never Really Here, the Amazon Films release stands as a neo-pulp masterpiece, a testament to the artistic genius of one of the most talented directors working today. Brutal and harrowing, it takes the cliché of the hyper-masculine, violent “lone wolf”—your Eastwoods and Waynes, on through Taken’s Liam Neeson with his “very particular set of skills”—and turns it on its head, gifting audiences with a tour de force performance from Phoenix as a vulnerable, damaged man who craves human connection even as he’s busting skulls.

Human connection—the desire for it, the lack of it, the inability to sustain it and the need to sometimes be cut off from it—is a common theme throughout Ramsay’s work. Her films are filled with characters—like Kevin’s Eva Khatchadourian (Tilda Swinton), unable to forge a bond with her son (Ezra Miller), or the title character (Samantha Morton) of 2002’sMorvern Callar, who at one point embarks on a solo jaunt across the Spanish countryside—who experience profound isolation. You Were Never Really Here’s Joe is no different. He has professional associates he intentionally avoids sharing any personal details with. The only person he really cares for is his elderly mother (Judith Roberts). The title refers to Ames’ description of Joe’s suicide attempt: “He felt himself diminishing, a shadow around the edges of his mind, and he heard a voice say, It’s all right, you can go, you were never really here.”

Asked what attracts her to stories of isolation, Ramsay responds in her typical friendly, no-BS fashion: “Well, don’t we all [feel isolated]?” This is a “strange time” right now, she elaborates, one where a constant barrage of information shared via social media leads to “a heightened mood where you can speak to lots of people but still be in your bubble, still be extremely lonely in some ways.”

Ramsay cut herself off from the onslaught while scripting You Were Never Really Here, which she penned while living on a small island in Greece. What drew her to Ames’ book was the complexity of Joe, whom she describes as “a really interesting and pretty fucked-up individual, but one you care about as well. One minute you think he’s a psychopath, and the next he’s singing with him mom… I don’t know if Joe’s a good guy or a bad guy. He’s neither. He’s all of them.” He’s “the opposite of a knight in shining armor,” Ramsay says. “He can’t even save himself.”

Another draw for Ramsay was Ames’ prose, which echoes the propulsive, “economical, but also very, very sharp” tone of pulp books and movies of the mid-20th century. Ramsay was determined that this carry through to her movie, which was intended to be (and succeeds in being) “tight and ferocious and economical, with not a bit of fat on it. Clean. [I wanted it to] not be self-indulgent and to keep it moving, but also to make it so you don’t really know where you’re going. These feel like opposite things, but that’s what I was trying to achieve.”

Ames’ You Were Never Really Here is a quick, exciting read—very quick, given that it cuts off more or less in the middle of Joe’s story, a situation that left Ramsay to come up with a third act. That’s exactly the sort of challenge the filmmaker relishes.

You Were Never Really Here’s shoot took place over 29 days, nestled in the middle of a sweltering New York summer. Phoenix, Ramsay recalls, “doesn’t like hanging around and waiting for things. The spirit was very, ‘Let’s go, let’s do it.’ I’m shooting with him within the first two minutes, and the crew is like ‘What do you mean, they’re shooting?’ The film has that kind of energy and briskness. It’s its own lean, ferocious thing.” And “exciting” to shoot, owing in large part to Phoenix. “Joaquin never plays the same take twice,” Ramsay observes. “You never quite know where this guy’s going to go, which I think is really interesting for an audience because you never know what’s going to happen next.”

Ramsay and her cast and crew “were having such fun in this place that was super-creative,” she says. “It was a bit like being in a band or something, and having a great jam.” The band metaphor is particularly applicable given the importance of sound to You Were Never Really Here. “In another life,” she explains, “I’d like to have been a mixer.” Instead, she worked closely with sound designer Paul Davies, who’s worked on all of her films save one short, and composer Jonny Greenwood (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Phantom Thread) to craft a soundscape that echoes Joe’s inner trauma.

“There were no cars” on the Greek island where she had been living, Ramsay recalls, “so I came to New York and closed my eyes and felt like I was going crazy. This city’s mad if you listen to it!” That aural onslaught is a key component of the finished film, which uses an expertly blended mix of silence and cacophony to paint Joe as an outsider drifting through a cloud of chaos. “For me,” Ramsay says, “what sound does in this film is more than half the picture.”

The result—of the sound design, the score, of Phoenix’s performance and Ramsay’s direction and everything else together—is a vital portrait of a complicated man. For no one is that vitality more acute than Ramsay herself. “I really feel it when I make films. I feel the things the actors do,” she says, recalling a nightclub scene in Morvern Callar where she unintentionally mirrored Samantha Morton’s back-and-forth sway from behind the camera. To be so in sync with what you’re filming “is exciting, and you hope that reflects in the movie at the end. Because if you’re not in it, then who’s going to be?”