How Joaquin Phoenix Made Thriller ‘You Were Never Really Here’ ‘Operatic’ (Video)

Director Lynne Ramsay and writer Jonathan Ames praise Phoenix’s “funny, terrifying” performance

Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here,” starring Joaquin Phoenix in the role of a former marine turned hitman, has the markings of a thriller in spite of the fact that it’s a surreal, complex, art house gem.

Speaking with TheWrap’s Beatrice Verhoeven at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, writer and director Ramsay and the novella’s author Jonathan Ames described how Phoenix’s tortured, unpredictable performance in the film elevated the source material beyond that of just a page-turner to something much grander.

“I was in a dark state of mind, so in some ways Joe was a metaphor for where I was at,” Ames said. “so I created a very damaged human being. And then I sent him on this adventure. Lynne and Joaquin took this page turner, took this tormented character, and as I said last night, made it operatic and multi-dimensional.”

“You Were Never Really Here” follows Joe, a secretive muscle for hire who tracks down missing girls. He’s tasked to rescue a teenager caught in an underage prostitution ring, but as things turn bloody and more out of hand, you find that Joe is much more in need of saving himself.

Ramsay described the short story and the film as two “very different animals,” and she praised Phoenix’s unpredictability and composure on set.

“He was so in it. He would never do the same thing twice. We would always try to push ourselves to keep thinking on the set,” Ramsay said. “He made it multi faceted, and he’s so funny, terrifying, just all these things. One of the best things about the film is you never know what to expect and what he’s going to do next.”

“You Were Never Really Here” opens in theaters today. Watch the clip from the Sundance interview with Ames and Ramsay above.