Lynne Ramsay has returned with a foray into the classic tale of a hard hitman with an untapped soft spot for the weak and helpless. But, unlike typically with this sub-genre of film where you’re asked to view the story from afar, Ramsay uses her signature emphasis on the lingering, lethargic images to take you straight into the frontal lobe of Joe, army veteran turned contract killer and our anti-hero. The story is relatively straightforward: politician’s teenage daughter trafficked, hitman hired to find the girl, mission goes wrong, killer does what he does best. Except, we’re not focusing on that.
This is a film that shies away from the violence and brutality that hitmen are typically known for; from the opening sequence, you’ve already missed the first kill, Ramsay instead showing you a macro post clean up and introducing you to this killer who can’t seem to stop sparks of his most disturbing memories from lighting up, but they disappear just as quickly and we’re left with nothing but silence and the next step in his day.
His struggles through the fragments of his memory are aided by that intense score which feels like it’s buried into your head and thumping to get out; sound engineer Paul Davies’ wanted surround sound for all the whispers and flashes of memory, and it really does feel like you’re trapped in the same disorientated mindset Joe is struggling through, made worse by the general stank of New York that lingers in the air.
In terms of the other characters, I would say… Minimalist. Most characters are only in a single scene, the exceptions being Nina, the girl he’s paid to save, and Joe’s mother, whose name we never catch, but all of them exist only to help understand Joe’s story, and we never get to connect with anyone else. Hardly a criticism for a character study, but I felt there was a lack of depth there as a whole because all of it is concentrated on Joe.
It feels like they marketed this film as a hitman uncovering a paedophile conspiracy and finding his redemption in the young girl he ‘saves’ and, of course, those elements are present, but we really don’t spend too much time on that because it’s not about that; it’s not about the kills, the bigger, unjust picture... hell is it even about the girl? Or is it just watching the process of a shattered man fall apart piece by piece in front of your eyes?
- Xiao Tang