Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Joaquin Phoenix
F.I.V.E. star rating:
F. Form: 5 / 5 [style, structure, technique]
I. Impression: 5 / 5 [impact, relevance, provocation]
V. Vision: 5 / 5 [audacity, innovation, perspective]
E. Experience: 4.5 / 5 [enjoyment, engagement, delight]
TOTAL: 98 / 100
A shot of a man’s head covered in a plastic bag, purposefully suffocating himself, is what fills the first frame of this exquisitely tense movie. It’s chilling to witness but also abstractly beautiful and it quickens the heartbeat. This is an economical movie that tells its simple revenge story primarily with images and sound. With this opening image, director Lynne Ramsay sums up the experience we are about to feel as an audience member (anxious, claustrophobic with touches of the serene) and the character it is depicting: Joaquin Phoenix playing a military veteran who saves young girls from sex trafficking while splinters of traumatic memories from childhood and war briefly invades his mind and our screen.
These memories never add up to any sort of reveal, as one would expect, because Ramsay isn’t that kind of filmmaker. She is entirely focused on the character’s present state while also understanding that this can’t be isolated from their past and so she shows them to us. But as they come in flashes and rapidly edited shards of images, they aren’t there to reveal something about his past (they don’t add up to a revelation as one would expect from a more conventional thriller) but informs his present state. Yes, they are memories but they are unwelcome memories that knock down the door to his brain triggered by something in his present.
When he is asked to take a photograph of a group of young girls on the street, the camera focuses on their mouths, smiling and happy, and it cuts to a glimpse of other girls’ mouths open, lifeless and cold-blue. He remembers a shipping container of dead young girls (presumably shipped for sex trafficking) who suffocated inside, left gasping for their final breaths with their mouths wide open. His present and past collide in these images. It articulates the ability of trauma to time-travel from the past and make itself felt intensely in the present. It lurks impatiently outside until a tiny opening lets it all rush in. These memories aren’t plotted into the structure of the movie (again to eventually lead to a reveal) but we experience them as he experiences them.
It is very much here, now, present. Ramsay isn’t interested in reveals and revelations, only senses and situation. This film is immediate and direct and no image or sound is perfunctory or useless. They don’t wander around or turn into something else. They are precisely what they are. Her images, like Joaquin Phoenix slowly mashing a jellybean with his fingers are loaded with symbolism but they resist explanation because they don’t fall under the trap of the metaphor. You can explain the crushing of a green jellybean as a crushing of childhood innocence, the brutality of the character (blah blah) but her images are potent enough that to interpret them is to render them dull.
The intensity of the image is better left with the image itself, not what it could represent. This work reminded me of the paintings of Francis Bacon - in its directness and ability to immediately communicate information and overwhelm its viewer through a single angry brushstroke or an insert shot sliced into place. Ramsay and Bacon are also similar in the way they express ugliness and violence into something sublime. This movie is brutal in its content but breathtakingly beautiful in its form. You will lose your breath in more ways than one.