Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a troubled war veteran and basically a hired gun, specializing in the finding and retrieving of missing and trafficked young girls. He lives with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts), who is the only person left in his life. And once you start seeing what’s in his head, you’ll understand why. He’s haunted by flashbacks, riddled with PTSD. It’s rough stuff, and it’s hard to keep straight. It actually appears hard for him to keep straight, and as he grapples with thoughts of suicide and questions of sanity, it seems his past might be catching up with him.
But the present’s not much better. His next job is to rescue Nina, a 13 year old girl being held in a brothel. Her father works for the government and doesn’t want to get police involved. And if Joe could, you know, fuck up the men who did this to her, he’d be pleased. But walking a mile in Joe’s boots is never straight forward. He’s plagued by violent images, by death, by his own abusive childhood.
Once the killing starts, it doesn’t end, and Joe is basically a zombie, barely evading death, and barely caring. Writer-director Lynne Ramsay keeps us off kilter with static-y flashbacks. We’re as unbalanced as Joe is, and we’re unable to really trust everything we see. It’s disorienting and clever, unhinged and a little scary since we never know what we’re walking into. It’s gory, or course, likely enough blood to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool, but we start to feel anesthetized to it because Joe barely registers it. Joaquin Phoenix really sells it. He sells a man who stopped caring about himself a long time ago. Who doesn’t trust his own reality, and isn’t particularly bothered by it. He suffers from these violent memories but nothing really jolts him from his stupor. It’s a great performance. And Ramsay somehow manages to evoke sympathy for this wounded soldier. She makes this action movie something special, something worth watching, even if the finished product is rather like a nightmare.