Trauma can be unbearable.
Joe has been trough a lot and his life is not exactly what you would call relaxed in any sense of the word. He is some sort of enforcer, his jobs eventually all leading to a point where his fist (or his hammer) will smash someone’s face in. One day he is assigned to retrieve a young girl from a sex trafficking ring, a job that disrupts his routine and thus his life, which palpably (and solely?) rests on latter.
This is not a completely new narrative at first glance, but it shows once again that cinema often finds its essence and its highs in the ‘how’ and not in the ‘what’. Not to say that this movie hasn’t got a brilliant story to tell, in the contrary – the narrative heights it reaches, affected me much more than I expected. But scottish indie darling Lynne Ramsay outdoes herself specifically from a directorial perspective, by creating a staggering crescendo of audiovisual composition, downright pressing the viewer further onto his seat with each passing minute and absorbing him on a level that is only achievable by a master of the cinematic language.
She puts a spin on a traditional revenge narrative by imbuing it throughoutly with the main characters psyche, making it much more visceral and expressionist in its storytelling and more compelling and gripping in its effect. It thus poses as a contrast to many similar action-heavy, gloomy narratives, that too often create an emotional distance between the tortured characters and the viewer.
Many of cinematographer Thomas Townend’s frames drip with despair, even during the scenes set in sunny daytime. There is a permanent sense of entrapment in the narrative, the sunshine is not able to purge that away. Johnny Greenwoods score is heart-pounding, but there is no sense of excitement in the violent scenes he accompanies, latter are often cut in a way that almost censors graphic images – Ramsay takes all of the usual ingredients for an exciting action film in directorial terms away and fills the blanks with Joe’s thoughts.
Latter is an incredibly complex character, brought to life by a performance that deservedly earned Joaquin Phoenix the Best Actor award at Cannes. There is so much in his face, so much that happened. Ramsay leaves many of the re-occuring, piercing memory fragments in an open context – she knows that the most important thing for us, is not to know what exactly happened. It’s just important that we are with Joe and feel his pain in the moment.
The search of purpose in the face of overwhelming existential angst, is the films main theme. Joe desperately tries to hold onto things that are about to slip away in the next moment. The film drips of that mental state in its language, every single scene remains framed into that mindset. It’s very special and very intoxicating.
When the film finally nears its endpoint, it does not try to take the easy way and tell a narrative of leaving trauma behind. Latter can be unbearable, and also ruthless for an entire life. The question often posed is: What exactly is left to live for? Giving and taking as a human means to survive is accentuated, and while trauma detaches the affected from the non-affected, the greatest redemption might be found inbetween the people who suffer, and who understand how it feels to do so.
There is a scene where Ramsay puts the focus on someone else than Joe, latter merely becomes a listener. It’s one of the most beautiful scenes I have seen in releases of the past few years, because it shows a moment of security and trust in the face of death, one that is full of a strange and deeply human warmth, we sometimes all dream of being exposed to.