Lynne Ramsay’s ultra-stylish, ultra-violent film marries Nicolas Winding Refn’s nihilistic fables of alpha-males beating one another to death, with the urban despair of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver.
It follows Joe, a ball-hammer wielding hit-man who carries out his wet-jobs with bloody efficiency. He’s a tortured soul: medicated, confused, disconnected. It’s no surprise to learn he’s a war vet.
Ramsay has never been burdened by a need for dialogue: her debut, Ratcatcher, followed a shy child in 1970s Glasgow; Morvern Callar was about a taciturn girl coming to terms with her boyfriend’s suicide; and in We Need to Talk About Kevin, the titular spree-killer weaponised his silence.
In lieu of words, Ramsay is content to hover over Joaquin Phoenix’s scarred, muscular torso; it’s only when we see his eyes that his strength drains away. He may be a killer, but he finds the world outside his frail mother’s home tough, and when he ventures out, the volume is pushed to uncomfortable levels, horns blaring and trains pelting by.
Things pivot when a job brings him into contact with an abused young girl, and the film shifts into pulpy, straight-to-TV drama territory (it brought to mind the terrible 1999 film 8mm, also starring Phoenix). This offers a path to redemption that seems too clean, too easy, and perhaps it is, with a lingering doubt over Joe’s sanity, as hinted at in the title.
In the end, though, I left wondering what the point of it all was, and thinking that the violence-to-synths genre that’s blossomed in recent years is starting to wear a little thin.