Lynne Ramsey gave us We Need to Talk About Kevin & Ratcather, so her latest offering was never going to be a bubbly rom-com, but this is bleak even in her oeuvre. Powerful, moving and interesting too. But bleak.
Phoenix plays a traumatised war vet Joe, a familiar enough trope, but here he is not a romantic action hero. He lives with his frail mother and practises dropping a knife into his foot and suffocating himself as his pastime. Phoenix is mesmerising in the central role. His physique is as much an indication of how this movie differs from other “troubled war vet turns hero” outings. Whereas in those films we’re expected to believe the guy drinks his weight in vodka every day, but still has the physique of someone who clearly spends 8 hours a day in the gym. In Ramsey’s film Joe is chunky, a solid but uncared for frame, with a believable switch to brutality.
When not caring for his mother and toying with suicide, Joe tracks down missing girls. He gets asked to rescue a senator’s daughter from an under age sex brothel. Here it goes full Travis Bickle, and when I tell you that his weapon of choice is the ball pein hammer you’ll appreciate it’s not glossy violence. After this Joe and his new charge get embroiled in a conspiracy with a spreading web of destruction and violence.
Not unlike Unsane, there is an overriding sense of dislocation about this movie. They both are characters descended from Camus’s L’Etranger. But Phoenix has a hammer. When the senator says to him “McCleary said you were brutal” Joe responds blandly “I can be.” And that is the core of the film, the funnelling and different forms of brutality. I had to go and watch some Agatha Raisin after this just to restore some equilibrium.