“Wake up. It’s a beautiful day.”
Going into the screening I passed a poster for YWNRH; my eyes were drawn a sound bite that read ‘Taxi Driver for the 21st century’. A bold declaration to see pre-watching,just how accurate would it be?
30 minutes of adverts, 90 minutes of film later and I could, kind of, see what was meant by that statement. Whilst the film may be unlikely to reach the iconic status of Scorsese’s 1976 classic, it certainly and very definitely falls into the same cluster of films both thematically and tonally.
We’re introduced to Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) in parts, literally. We only see his torso and limbs as he moves around a hotel room, gathering up an array of objects that suggest violence has occured recently, before leaving the hotel room in a manner that suggests he really doesn’t want to be seen. It’s clear bad things occured in the hotel room. What isn’t clear is if Joe himself is bad.
It’s a question the film intentionally chooses not to answer, or at least provide us with a clear one. There’s a degree of ambiguity with Joe, unlike the degree of transparency we get with Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Both men are revealed to have witnessed great trauma, suffering with what would be diagnosed with PTSD. Both have quirks and predilections that would be classified as deviant and mark them as other.
But Joe’s life has one feature that grounds him and alludes to an innate goodness – his mother. There’s a subtly portrayed sweetness within their interactions, an underlying sense that their current calm – which seems only recently found- is only temporary. Ramsey has carefully curated these scenes, as she has with the entirety of the film, to maximise their poignancy in a manner that seems effortless. The care with which he treats his mother shows his love for her, as does his inflicting retribution upon those who cross his path. It’s clear great traumas occurred during his childhood, causing Joe to formulate a conscience of sorts – a protector of children and a brutal destroyer of those who hurt them. His motivations are unquestionably personal when he agrees to search for Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov), a senator’s missing daughter.
The film plays out in a manner that requires the audience to put together the pieces. The story isn’t simply handed to us, like Joe we must play detective to work out what is going on. Or, at least, what we think is going on. The result is tense, constantly on edge and occasionally nerve shredding. Phoenix’s performance is perfection, a man bedraggled both inside and out. It’s elevated even further through the union of cinematography and music.
Ramsey uses a menagerie of shots and angles, from point of view to cctv and everything in between. Jonny Greenwood’s score intensifies proceedings with a score that pulsates with the same blend of quiet throbbing rage that exudes from Joe. Then there’s the use of pop music, particularly ‘L-O’V-E’, sung by mother & son during a brief respite of calm.
This is a true auteur piece, a film that feels truly unique to its director. A study in suffering that stays with the viewer long past its end credits.