With her fourth film director Lynne Ramsay delivers an immersive, hypnotic thriller deplete with imagery of emotional pain and dreamlike visual lyricism enhanced by a powerful, throbbing score. No wonder she won herself the award for Best Screenplay and Joaquin Phoenix received the award for Best Actor in 2017 Cannes Festival.
The film was conceived and executed with evident influences from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive (2011). It introduces as to Joe, an unimaginably hurt creature able to spread monstrous, gore terror but also experience fear, guilt, love and tenderness.
I can’t recall a similar introduction to the main character before. Several minutes go by until we actually see his face but first, we get a glimpse of a habit of his, that of putting a plastic bag around his head, asphyxiating and reaping it off just in time. My instinctive association was that of sexual fetishism but Joe is more complicated than that.
We later see him leaning off the edge of a train platform when a woman with a bruised face is peeping behind a pillar; she recognises the pain perhaps… or has indulged in similar thoughts herself? Joe has suicidal fantasies daily; hanging off the edge of train platforms, asphyxiating, playing with knives over his open mouth, trying to drown himself after a severe loss and in a climaxing diner scene towards the ending he fantasises shooting himself point blank.
As a child he remained powerless against the menace of an abusive father. His legacy however passed on as Joe hasn’t dismissed his father’s appetite for violence, nor his favourite weapon, the hammer. Is the hammer empowering him as by representing his worst childhood fear, it turns him into the ultimate terror, or is it perhaps a joke on his father, now that his son is liberating abused kids with the same tool that once served his old man’s perversion?
Joe still suffers the aftermath of the abuse under his skin but thanks to his line of work (he is a hitman but also, retrieves kids that were abducted for sex slavery), every victim he saves may represent an attempt to save his younger self. However, in spite of acting in retribution this doesn’t amount to a cathartic, healing process that could grant him his freedom from past nightmares, instead he carries them around with him every moment.
In a particular scene where he lies beside his mother’s killer, holding his hand you see he is embracing a brother’s journey to the other side and making it almost his own. For all his hypnotising fantasies involving death, he is able to make that connection with the afterlife through a fellow hired gun or keeping company to him as a substitute experience to the one he would like to have had with his mother.
Joe is capable for love, compassion and sacrifice. He is caring for his mother and showing his affection by cleaning her fridge, seating by her bedside until she falls asleep and helping her polish the silverware while accompanying her in their favourite song. Later on, he will launch on a risky, vengeance mission to save Nina.
Joaquin Phoenix is sensational and shows great skill and capacity to creatively adopt an overly used persona and make it his own. His piercing eyes alone tell a complex, scary story and his ability to violently shake you and remind you that you know nothing of torment is astonishing. Towards the ending, during the mansion scenes in the absence of lines his talent radiates as he employs physicality to take us through Joe’s crisis. I believe that Phoenix’s performance elevates the character to the cult pantheon next to personas like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976), Dae-su (Oldboy, 2003), the Bride (Kill Bill, 2003-04), Léon Montana (Léon, 1994) to mention a few.
Ramsay abandons linear narrative for a more rich and interesting approach that embraces flash-backs and quick-fired visions. In essence, she is throwing a few pieces of Joe’s psyche puzzle here and there and are not enough for us to construct an elaborate, clear storyline. They suffice however to spot his most recurrent, haunting visions and the initial trauma that marked his later life. She also indulges us with extreme close-ups to transmit his extreme pain and loneliness.
She likes to shoot through surfaces for instance standing on the other side of the platform we observe Joe through the passing train or when engaged in a gory fight, we enjoy dizzying shots through the glass ceiling. In a remarkable, dreamlike scene where his mother’s body is drawn to the bottom of the lake, we see her hair floating in a slow-motion capture, in the same way a few scenes back the camera focused on Nina’s hair. That is a beautifully-poetic connection between the two characters, followed by a vision that more clearly associates the two in Joe’s mind and will push him to emerge from his passivity.
Lynne Ramsay’s visual poetry is dressed with a shrill, muddy score, where electronic, polyphonic pieces intertwine with chilling, high dynamic range compositions, able to cause vertigo and despair. In particular, the “Dark Streets” track encompasses haunting, electro abyss. Jonny Greenwood’s work is always excellent and unique and earlier this year earned him an Academy Award nomination for composing the score for his lifelong collaborator’s latest film, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread (he has also composed the score for Inherent Vice and The Master, both films featuring Phoenix).
After the film you might check Lynne Ramsay’s previous work (it’s only three films so there’s no excuse not to…), similarly delve into Greenwood’s compositions and admit that Joaquin Phoenix has a raw quality about him and a capacity to convey pain that only few of his colleagues have. Also, you might feel ready to engage more actively with the pain of others, or perhaps your very own despair. Finally, you might try to capture the feelings you would experience if you led a life where you could disappear and leave no traces behind, as if you were never really here at all.