This film is more of a character study inside a man’s mind than a lucid story. Yet it is totally gripping.
Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) works in private security, a profession which seems to cover a multitude of other people’s sins. He lives with his ageing mother (Judith Roberts). His reputation rests on his brutal efficiency in “disposing of problems” and his speciality is the recovery of runaway teenagers, whose wealthy parents for whatever reason don’t wish to involve the police. Joe’s latest job is to find Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), daughter of ambitious young politician, Senator Votto (Alex Manette), who is running mate for the election campaign of Senator Williams (Alessandro Nivola). To avoid the publicity spotlight, Votto wants Joe to rescue the girl from the sex-trafficking ring in which she has become entrapped and deal with the perpetrators himself in his usual manner rather than involve the authorities.
In other hands this could be an action thriller. In Ramsay’s it is a psychological study of a man damaged and confused by a traumatic past hinted at but never fully explained by flashbacks inside his head of Joe’s experiences as a soldier and more disturbingly of him being physically abused as a child, which is probably the reason for his professional specialty. That frail and dependent mother, on whom he seems to dote is, it would appear, also poisonous. His vision and ours of his world is dark, disturbing, violent and dangerous.
There are no answers, no glib explanations. The film is often puzzling but also densely packed, hypnotic and frequently shockingly violent with a central performance by Phoenix, which is totally gripping and unpredictable. He is a bulky, shambling, powerful figure. We are both terrified for him and terrified of him.
It is also beautifully made. The cinematography by Thomas Townend, music (Jonny Greenwood), sound design (Paul Davies) and editing (Joe Bini) all contribute to Ramsay’s purpose in making us part of Joe’s nightmare world.