We’re excited to announce our next Special Issue film: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here! Read a preview of our interviews with Ramsay and producer Jim Wilson before the full issue on the week of March 26th.
You may have heard rumblings in the air, but now it’s official: we’re working on a Special Issue for Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here! Starting March 26th, we will publish one piece on the film each day — an in-depth interview or an essay. Starring Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, a hitman with PTSD tasked with rescuing a young girl from sex traffickers, Ramsay’s first foray into genre territory is one of the most acclaimed films of the year so far — and one of Seventh Row’s favourites.
When I saw the final cut at the London Film Festival in October, I left the cinema in a state of shock. It was such a brutal, visceral experience that I didn’t know what to make of it. Elena Lazic had loved it at Cannes, too, so we knew we had to do a Special Issue on the film: Lynne Ramsay has made consistently detailed, sensory films throughout her career (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar, We Need to Talk About Kevin), and her latest is another rich tapestry that demands unpacking. Even in an unfinished version, the film picked up two prizes at Cannes (Best Screenplay for Ramsay and Best Actor for Phoenix).
In our issue, we will explore why the film has such a visceral impact on audiences. Elena and I will both be writing essays on the film: I’m exploring why its sensitivity and subversive approach set it apart from similar hitman character studies, and Elena is tackling Ramsay’s haptic filmmaking, which has left an indelible mark on audiences. That complete sensory overload and immersion that You Were Never Really Here achieves is thanks, in large part, to Ramsay’s crew: the film’s visuals, editing, and sound are wild and experimental. Ramsay is such a collaborative director — layering her films with the creative input of her entire crew — that we knew we’d only get the full picture if we talked to all of them. So, we’ll also be publishing interviews with DP Tom Townend and editor Joe Bini.
But if you become a Seventh Row member, you’ll have access to exclusive bonus content: an interview with sound designer Paul Davies — investigating his brutal, immersive sound mix — and an interview with producer Jim Wilson, which takes a detailed look at the film’s hectic production: there was almost no prep time and only five weeks to prepare for Cannes. That makes for a lot of crazy, unbelievable stories. This bonus content will also be available at a later date in our eBook on the film (available for pre-order soon).
Read a preview of our interviews with Lynne Ramsay and Jim Wilson:
You Were Never Really Here has drawn comparison to films like Taken, Taxi Driver, and Drive, but we’re interested in how the film differs from them. As producer Jim Wilson told us, “It could be some total genre number, but by putting it through her grinder — Lynne Ramsay gaze — it becomes something even stranger”.
Ramsay is more interested in the beauty in this violent world than the brutality itself. Phoenix’s Joe might initially seem like your typical brooding, avenging male archetype: we’re introduced to him disposing of evidence and headbutting a man in an alleyway, to the sound of a synth score that oozes cool. But You Were Never Really Here deconstructs cinema’s lionization of characters like Joe as troubled but noble heroes: his sensitivity is revealed, and detached cool and excitement is replaced with the disorientation and discomfort of PTSD.
The collaborators on the film shared the goal of “deconstruct[ing] genre archetypes,” said Wilson. “It can’t be the straight version of a lone wolf, male operator rescuing a girl against the bad guys, like Nic Refn. I’m sure he would do that brilliantly, with style to burn, but why would Lynne Ramsay be doing that? How can we make sure that it is that unpredictable, surprising mix of things clashing? Deconstruct it and unravel it.”
Bini’s editing and Davies’ sound design employ highly subjective techniques that are key to immersing us in Joe’s fractured mind. “[Joe]’s a mess”, explained Ramsay when I talked to her at the Glasgow Film Festival. “He’s not a white knight that comes in and rescues the girl. It’s not that at all. We were looking at Joe’s impotence”. Ramsay forgoes a standard, heroic journey, instead trapping us inside Joe’s mind. Davies’ mix assaults us with overwhelming sounds, from the sudden jolt of a bullet to the screeching cacophony of New York traffic. Bini’s cuts are sudden and disarming, setting you on edge and distorting reality.
Townend’s gorgeous cinematography is the driving force of You Were Never Really Here, given that the script is so scarce. The images are the film, and they are, at turns, surreal, brutal, and mundane: “What you don’t do is put lots of beautiful images together, because they cancel each other out”, Ramsay reasoned. “I think it’s that the visuals don’t just come from pretty pictures. They come from what you’re trying to say about this character. What’s the psychology of this moment?” As such, the cinematography has multiple modes depending on Joe’s state of mind. PTSD-induced flashbacks are startlingly sharp, assaultively switching between wides and intense close-ups. The suicidal Joe’s closest brushes with death are stunningly beautiful, because he sees death as a release — but when he forces himself to stay alive, the world looks drab.
Ramsay made many radical divergences from both the source material and her initial script. Under time constraints — the production was fast-tracked when Phoenix suddenly became available in the summer of 2016 — everyone was forced to improvise. As producer Jim Wilson described, “[Ramsay] exploded parts of the script and the story that she’d written and reassembled it. [She] made some radical changes that were really bold and would require completely different editing of the story. That was a gamble, because you would only know if it would work after, when you were back in London in the cutting room”. Bini then had to cut that footage together into something coherent — and he succeeded, making bold, creative choices in subjective editing.
This experimentation is evident in the finished product: the film is made up of weird and interesting choices that are very much the product of the high pressure filmmaking environment. The result is a film that’s a commercial gamble and a rarity. It’s experimental, strange, a violent genre film by a female director — and all the more uniquely brilliant for it. It’s the kind of film that may be sadly overlooked or given a shallow read by critics, but deserves the detailed analysis our Special Issues afford: it has the depth, intricacies, and oddities to support that.
You can read our full interview with Ramsay on March 26th when our Special Issue kicks off.