Park City, Utah – It's difficult to list the work of Scottish film director, screenwriter, producer and cinematographer Lynne Ramsay without using the term "acclaimed." Her uneasy psychological features ignore the boilerplate of Hollywood film, its logical and formal boundaries. While they're not familiar to a broad swath of American moviegoers, her distinctive dramas "Ratcatcher," "Morvern Callar" and "We Need to Talk About Kevin" swept competitors aside at international film festivals and triggered widespread use of the usually taboo exclamation "masterpiece."
The fourth film in her 20-year career, "You Were Never Really Here," is a missing-person thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a troubled veteran trying to retrieve a politician's daughter from a child prostitution ring.
Like "Taxi Driver," it's an abstract personality study and a fear-filled revenge shocker combined. That triggers a variety of reactions that Ramsay enjoys.
"So many people have different interpretations of the movie," she said. "One person sees it like an action film, one person sees it as a character film, one person sees it as a noir."
Ramsay adapted the film from Jonathan Ames' 2013 novella, a 21st-century version of traditional detective pulp.
"It was pretty subversive. I kind of loved the first-person narration. You'd imagine doing a voice-over with it if you were doing it straight up. The question to me was, how do you get this guy? He lives with his mom, he's suicidal, he's middle-aged, he's out of shape. He's got a Quasimodo body and scars. How do you visualize that with cinema? You start out and build away from anything that feels like cliché. And you end up going deeper down the rabbit hole."
Before even contacting him, Ramsay put a photo of Phoenix above her keyboard.
"I didn't know what he was going to do, but it was going to be interesting," she said. "He's going to bring everything that goes against these kinds of characters. He can bring humor and darkness and intensity, and he's never played anything like this."
While some financiers "bandied about names of big action heroes, I was like 'No way, no way. Don't ask me anymore, because I'll go on using the same name.' He makes the character come to life in a much more interesting way then you could have read it in the book."
Her vision for the story partly drew from her love for silent films. Its modest budget and rapid, 29-day shooting schedule compressed it to 85 minutes of largely dialogue-free anxiety.
"A lot of the classic B movies had really tight running times. I really enjoyed that process of working for something short and everything coming out my way," she said.
It certainly worked out. Cannes gave its best actor award to Phoenix and a best screenplay trophy to Ramsay.
Though her signature quality as a moviemaker is a dreamlike visual and storytelling style, she said she never loses sleep to boogeymen.
"Glaswegians have got the blackest, darkest sense of humor. It's surreal what the people say. Scotland is such a dark country in the winter that people say the strangest, twisted things. I got into my own world there. We had a big family and it was always noisy, people sharing the toilet and all that.
"So I kind of put myself in this little bubble. I was the best kid ever because my mom would give me a pad and some pencils and I'd be quiet for hours. They used to think I was a little bit touched because when they said my name I could never hear them."
Ramsay considers filmmakers "kind of like amateur psychologists. You try to work out what humanity is, like the darker aspects. This world is not a black and white place anymore. Everything you think you've got hold of kind of crumbles. It's a scary world."