Acclaimed Scottish writer-director Lynne Ramsay makes a welcome return to our screens with this brutal and haunting psychological thriller adapted from the 2013 novella by Jonathan Ames. A heavily bearded Joaquin Phoenix stars as Joe, a grizzled former FBI agent and Gulf War veteran who now works in the shady area of ‘private security’, specialising in tracking down young girls who have been abducted into sex slavery and dispatching their captors with extreme prejudice.
Joe's latest assignment involves Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), the pre-teen daughter of a high-ranking New York senator (Alex Manette), who's been kidnapped and put to work in a Manhattan brothel. However, the rescue mission doesn't quite go according to plan and Joe finds himself at the centre of a sinister conspiracy.
There are distinct echoes of Scorsese's Taxi Driver in Joe's central quest, with the safety of a young girl at stake and the ominous background of political skullduggery. Yet Ramsay's script eschews genre expectations and refuses easy answers, instead presenting the story as a nightmarish, almost impressionistic experience that effectively puts the audience inside Joe's head, complete with briefly glimpsed, unexplained flashbacks and disorienting perspectives.
Ramsay takes a similar approach to the violence, which is brutal and horrific, but avoids standard action movie set-ups, instead presenting each grisly outburst from an inventive or unusual perspective, most notably during a particular sequence involving multiple CCTV cameras, set slightly out of sequence.
In addition, Ramsay contrasts the violence with moments of gallows humour, such as the scene where Joe puts down his bag of weaponry in order to take a photo for a group of posing young women, or a moment involving a memorable singalong to Charlene’s I’ve Never Been To Me that it would be churlish to spoil here.
The film is further heightened by stunning cinematography from Thomas Townend, coupled with rhythmic, moody editing from Joe Bini (reuniting with Ramsay after We Need To Talk About Kevin) and a masterful score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood that recalls his best work for P.T. Anderson.
Always a fascinating actor to watch, Phoenix is on magnificent form here, using his hulking, scarred physique to impressive effect and delivering an intensely internalised performance that conveys terrifyingly deep reserves of pain and rage. In addition, he generates striking, wordless chemistry with Samsonov (their relative lack of dialogue placing them on strangely equal footing) and there's strong support from Judith Roberts in a small but pivotal role as Joe's dementia-addled mother.