Joachim Phoenix ("Her") is a very intense actor, and fits perfectly here into the role f Joe. For he is a hired thug, available to do over anyone you think deserves dispatching or giving a good telling off. His weapon of choice for this task is a ball-point hammer, bought each time from a local hardware shop. He is a ghost, who drifts in and out of his jobs, face concealed by a hoodie and emanating an air of menace that automatically deflects enquiring eyes.
When hired by a Senator (Alex Manette) to rescue his wayward daughter Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from the clutches of a paedophile gang, Joe delivers on the job with gusto, and - you sense - a degree of satisfaction. But then things go from bad to violent worse and Joe is drawn into a deadly high stakes game. As things get more and more personal, Joe embarks on a personal crusade for justice and retribution.
The real joy of this film is that Joe is such a nuanced character. Yes, he's a brutal thug, but is still living with and loving his aged and demented mother (Judith Roberts), even though she drives him to distraction. He's also clearly damaged himself, with a high degree of OCD behavior exhibited. Via clever flashbacks, we get hints to the route that led the boy to become this damaged man. As a sociopath, when things go wrong he could just say "F*** it" and walk away. But he doesn't. Is this altruism? A sense of professional pride? Or is it the sight of a path to redemption? Although you could strongly argue that revence kicks in to reinforce his decision, Lynne Ramsay's screenplay leaves things deliciously vague. Ramsey also directs expertly: she previously did 2011's "We Need To Talk About Kevin".
"I don't like gory films" you might say "so this doesn't sound like one for me". Me neither, but actually, the trailer makes the film seem worse than it is. The violence is more alluded to than shown. Most of the "hammer action" is done either in long shot or seen on CCTV cameras, and you don't get to see much of the outcome. There is only one really gory bit that I remember (shut your eyes where Phoenix answers the knock at the hotel door if you are squeamish!).
This doesn't mean that it's a comfortable watch though. It's an insanely tense film since you're not sure the direction it will go in next (think "Get Out"), and it has more than its fair share of "WTF" moments, especially in a dramatic closing scene. There are some memorable cinematic moments as well: a young girl in a nightie in the paedophile den blankly observing Joe's handiwork being one that stays with you.
It's a standout film, winning Best Actor (for Phoenix) and best screenplay (for Ramsey) at Cannes. It will be in a strong position to make my films of the year list. Highly recommended.
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