NEW YORK — For a moment while sitting next to the Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, Joaquin Phoenix slips into a low, Liam Neeson register.
He's describing how his tormented vigilante — a broken, brooding soul of fragility and brutality — in Ramsay's "You Were Never Really Here" bears few of the traditional thriller protagonist qualities.
"It's not like: 'You kidnapped my wife! Now I know my mission and I'm not going to stop,'" Phoenix says with an exaggerated growl while Ramsay chuckles. "There are several moments where you wonder: He's just going to say, 'F--- this. I can't do it.'"
"You Were Never Really Here," which opens Friday, is Ramsay's fourth and most frenetic feature film. While it has some of the broad outlines of pulp — when a job goes wrong Phoenix's avenger-for-hire is plunged into an underworld of child sex trafficking — it's far more fractured, poetic and existential than the story line suggests.
"I wasn't quite sure what it was," Ramsay said in a recent joint interview alongside Phoenix. "I wasn't saying: I'm deconstructing the genre. I wasn't doing anything so lofty. But it's just turned out that every film I've made has ended up a character study even if I thought I was making an action movie."
As she showed in the acclaimed trio of "Ratcatcher," ''Morvern Callar" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin," a character study for Ramsay is never a straightforward undertaking. Her films — intimate and volatile — reflect splintered psychologies beset by trauma: at-sea people grasping for a foothold. A young boy reconciling the death of his friend. A woman who wakes on Christmas to find her boyfriend has killed himself. A mother whose son shoots up a school.
In "You Were Never Really Here," Phoenix's Joe is haunted by shards of violent memories: his father's abuse of his mother, a death in Iraq, a shipping container of dead migrants. In a way that might resonate for anyone who keeps up with the news, Joe, in his own warped way, is consumed by a sense of helplessness to life's tragedies.
"The world's really overwhelming at the moment," says Ramsay. "To me, there was a kind of catharsis in making it."
Much of the film's propulsive, deconstructionist spirit is a result of how "You Were Never Really Here" was made. After Phoenix's schedule changed, he called up Ramsay and asked if they could start shooting not in the fall of 2016, but in the summer.
"I said, 'Can you do this in like six weeks?'" said Phoenix. "And she said, 'Yeah.' And then she said, 'I'm still working on the script.' And I thought that was amazing to be willing to jump in on it without feeling like it's there."
The shoot over 29 days in New York was filled with rewriting, improvising and shape-shifting. Ramsay and Phoenix met on the first day of production. Some roles were cast just days before their scenes were shot. Ramsay estimates she shot enough footage for three films.
"I've never gotten to the end of a film shoot and thought: Let's go make another movie right now. Normally, you're exhausted," said Ramsay. "This was maybe the most exciting film shoot I've ever worked on. I just felt invigorated every day. It was always alive. It was grimy and sweaty and crazy and noisy and I never slept."
Ramsay and Phoenix, both cliche-adverse to the extreme and strong believers in following their instincts, found they were kindred spirits.
"It's really fun to sit around a table and go through things and analyze it and intellectualize moments. But the truth is: When it's really great is when you're actually holding the hammer and you're walking down the hall. That's when things come alive," Phoenix said.
Post-production was just as accelerated. Ramsay rushed the editing to ready the movie for last year's Cannes Film Festival, where it was purposefully scheduled last in the Palme d'Or competition. It won best screenplay for Ramsay and best actor for Phoenix. Almost two years later, they still marvel at the unpredictable, whirlwind production, one further destabilized by Phoenix's unpredictable performance.
"I first started getting into the idea of toxic stress and having repeated trauma in your life from a very young age, and what that does to somebody developmentally, to their brain. Literally neural pathways that aren't formed and go dormant," says Phoenix. "I became really interested in the idea of this guy whose physicality and his brain aren't matching up right. There's this goodness to him but he can't really figure out a long-term way of solving a problem. He's forced to just do things in this immediate way."
For a filmmaker so at home at a breakneck pace, "You Were Never Really Here" is Ramsay's first feature in seven years and her second in more than 15 years. She extensively prepared to write and direct "The Lovely Bones" before being dropped for Peter Jackson. And she walked away from the Western "Jane Got a Gun," starring Natalie Portman, just as production was starting in a dispute over creative control with producers that ultimately led to lawsuits. Gavin O'Connor later directed the film.
"She's had a rough go of it as a director because she is so true to her vision," said "Kevin" star Ezra Miller. "She's unyielding. She's the punk-rock, Iggy Pop of this game. And, hmm, surprisingly, she's had trouble with some controlling, generally male producers. And she's overcome that to make some incredible films."
"Let's please do everything we can, collectively as an industry, to make sure Lynne Ramsay's next film is not in as many years as the distance from the last film, and the distance prior to that," added Miller.
Making "You Were Never Really Here," the 48-year-old Ramsay says, made her feel "like a kid again." On a recent spring day in New York, she and Phoenix looked almost tempted to step outside and start shooting something, maybe even a comedy.
"I think Lynne has that inherent goodness that Joe has," says Phoenix. "There's this way of seeing the world. No matter how trying or challenging it can be, there is some optimism there, some hope."