Based on Jonathan Ames’ eponymous novella, the film tells the story of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), an army vet with some serious issues. If you thought Chris Kyle in American Sniper had PTSD problems, wait until you see this guy. At first Joe is appears to be some kind of paedophile serial killer for the film opens on him lying on a hotel with a plastic bag over his head. A girl’s jewellery and a bloody hammer are his companions. We are also given a brief glimpse into Joe’s troubled childhood, but the details remain undisclosed for now. And when he leaves Cincinatti for home in New York, the fact that he lives with his elderly mother (the fabulous Judith Roberts) in a house that appears unchanged since the 1960s only adds to the Norman Bates comparison. Ramsay plays a nice Psycho joke on us at this point (she was also responsible for the screenplay), but we are still uncertain about who this man is and what drives him.
However, it transpires that Joe is a good guy of sorts, called upon to rescue girls when people don’t want to involve the police. So while he does have a penchant for hammer-swinging violence, he is actually a mercenary knight in shining armour. But when he’s asked to rescue a senator’s daughter, Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), who’s being kept as a sex slave, things begin to go badly wrong.
The settings in this film recall an earlier age: there’s Joe’s home, where time seems to have stood still, and the senator’s office and home, which are both rich and dark – all mahogany and marble. And the story itself is redolent of gritty crime novels by Jim Thompson or James Ellroy. Yet Ramsay has placed the film firmly in the present thanks to the stunning score by the uber-talented British composer Jonny Greenwood, who wrote the score for There Will Be Blood. The music is intrinsic in ratcheting up the tension. The colours of this film are outstanding, cinematographer Thomas Townend having done an incredible job. The violet hues of the night sky are mirrored and exaggerated in the light of a sauna Joe enters. Skies, car lights and the cityscape all create a stunning palette. There is a merciful use of black and white when Joe enters the house where the girls are kept. We watch everything via the CCTV cameras and are grateful for the lack of colour and sound. And when Joe takes a brief trip to the country, the verdant haven serves to give the viewer a well-earned breather after being on constant alert for violence.
While the story is a grim one, it is not without funny moments, particularly in Ramsay’s musical choices. When we hear Charlene’s “I’ve Never Been To Me” playing on the radio, we are pretty sure that somebody is about to go to paradise and when the Hollies’ “The Air that I Breathe” comes on the air we are looking at a man gasping his last. This scene also provides one of the most original, tender and humane moments I’ve ever seen in a film. This all points to a film so meticulously well-crafted – just in how we often see pots boiling, hissing and squealing, augmenting the pressure cooker tension as both the audience and characters are on the edge of their nerves.
This is an exhilarating, tense and beautiful film. As Joe, Joaquin Phoenix is a bearded, marble block of a man. As he navigates through the subterfuge and the piles of bodies, he also has to navigate through his past torment and present pain. Ramsay keeps us with him throughout as he is in every scene, but she also keeps us on this damaged man’s side despite his propensity for the hammer. Palme d’Or or not, there is no doubt that Ramsay has made a winner.