You’d never expect Lynne Ramsay to do a straight narrative crime procedural, and this certainly isn’t one. The story of a haunted former cop and hired mercenary on the trail of a young girl kidnapped for a sex trafficking ring among the city’s elite is much more about the haunting than the trail.
And there are actually parallels with Phoenix’s later role in Joker. Here’s he’s a similarly broken man, crippled by PTSD after the horrible things he’s seen as an FBI agent specalising in sex trafficking. It’s left him mumbling, incoherent, barely able to function in society as he walks among the scumbags at its margin, and even gives him an elderly mother to take care of. The only leap from Joe to Arthur Fleck is the make-up.
It seems that Joe enterting into a life where he finds kidnapped girls and young women for a living was a kind of crusade after what he’s seen in his work, but it’s also crippled him spiritually and emotionally. Instead of using any kind of due process he’s just a blunt force weapon, symbolised in the tool of choice he uses to chop his way through whoever stands in the way of his goal (a hammer). He’s given his latest assignment by his usual contact when the daughter of a prominent state senator disappears, the enigmatic Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov).
Joe embarks on his usual surveillance and enquiries, finds a discreet and high class brothel right in the city that deals with underage girls, and through dispassionate and detatched security camera footage – much of which doesn’t even show the traditional action movies beats any other version of the same story would – brutally dispatches the security goons between him and Nina.
While he’s waiting in a dingy hotel room for Nina’s father to arrive and collect her, news breaks over the radio that the guy’s actually killed himself. Two cops enter downstairs, kill the guy minding the desk and come up to the room to take Nina by force. One gets away with her, but Joe overpowers and kills the other.
Even then, when the plot intrigue kicks into a higher gear (a conspiracy involving a skeezy governer with a taste for girls like Nina) and Joe has to hunt down her abductors to rescue her again, it’s much more about his trauma than any action movie tropes or plot mechanics. There’s even a slightly bizarre sequence in a diner when Joe entertains a suicide fantasy, blowing his brains out while other diners continue to eat and chatter around him, oblivious.
It’s not a massive stretch for an actor as talented as Phoenix, because all he has to really do is mumble and stare balefully. We’d see much more range and much more craziness later in Joker.
If you approach it as a thriller you might be slightly disappointed. The plot is the merest framework on which to hang a very stylised mood and the plumbing of a very distinctive characterisation. But if you know anything about Ramsey’s work you should already be approaching it as a character piece about somebody cracked in half by the aftermath of violence.
Subscribe to FIB’s Weekly Alchemy Report for your weekly dose of music, fashion and pop culture news!