Warning: This story contains mild spoilers for You Were Never Really Here.
Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here is a dark, gritty thriller about a veteran turned gun for hire who tracks down missing girls for a living. Clocking in at just under 90 minutes, the film is both a troubling introspection of Joe's (Joaquin Phoenix) own major psychological traumas, and a nosedive into a tangled world of crime. It is, to say the least, intense.
So, it was with some surprise that I learned that the writer and director wrote the script, based on Jonathan Ames' novella by the same name, on spec in four weeks spent in sunny Santorini, Greece. "I was there during the winter, next to a volcano," she recalled during an interview with Refinery29."There was one cafe open, and we had an amazing view of people learning chess, and it was a cool place to write because you’re kind of off the grid."
The result is a psychologically and emotionally violent film that is made all the more so by the fact that the vast majority of its brutal actions take place off screen, in the viewer's imagination. It's a technique that Ramsay's used in the past, specifically in We Need To Talk About Kevin, which told the story of a mother trying to come to terms with her son's involvement in a school shooting. "I was actually at this film festival in Dublin where I said, ‘I don’t really like violence,’ and everyone laughed," Ramsay said. But in reality, Ramsay explained that she was slightly terrified of taking on the kind of action sequences required for this project, especially since she'd never taken on a genre like this before. "It’s a realm of the guys normally," she said.
Her film is certainly a deliberate, vivid, and almost agonising exploration of one man's psyche, but also of his relationship with the women around him: his ageing mother (Judith Roberts), who he lives with and takes care of, and Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the little girl he's in charge of recovering. But Ramsay refuses to be placed in a neat little box, a rebellious streak that's present in all her films, and applies to her creative choices as well. She refuses to be limited by her gender."I feel like a filmmaker first, who happens to be a woman," she said. "It’s pretty reductive to say that women should make just stories about women. Guys make loads of stories about women. Nothing’s off limits if you’re exploring the world. I’ve made a film about a young kid, a boy, about a young adult in her early 20s, a mother — it’s whatever characters you gravitate towards. We need women’s stories — but women can tell lots of stories about lots of different things."
She has a similar attitude towards the term "female filmmaker," often used by the media to highlight achievement in a realm that is often so hard for women to break into, but that can also have its pitfalls. "There’s a lot of people asking me questions like, 'What it’s like to be a woman director?'" Ramsay said. "And I’m like, 'When you ask that to a man, maybe the world will be a more equal place.'"
In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, she was quoted as saying she has a reputation for "being difficult," a word often used to describe decisive and assertive women doing what many assume should be a man's role. When I asked her about it, she laughed. "I do think it’s in the job description. You’re a director, and the director has to be the captain of the ship. You have to [make] some tough decisions, and you have to go with what you feel is true. As a guy you’ll be the creative genius, and that gets used less for women."
Ramsay added that her relationship with her crew is very close and and collaborative, and that any idea is good if it serves the film. She's one of the rare human beings that Phoenix, who “fucking hates calling people artists”, will describe as just that. In fact, the Oscar-nominated actor was apparently so keen to work with Ramsay that he signed on to the film without ever having met her, a first time occurrence for him.
And that gamble paid off. The two hit it off immediately, but things really clicked when, during the first week of shooting, Phoenix had to plunge into a pool at a Russian bathhouse. It was the stickiest night of a sticky New York summer, and as Ramsay describes it, the water "was really scuzzy. Guys had been in it all day."
"I could tell he was suffering," she added, "And I thought, 'I have to see what that's like.'" So, she waded in with him. The water was gross, but the feeling was electric, and I can't think of a better way to describe the final cinematic result.
"You Were Never Really Here" is in cinemas now.
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