The quality of this film that I admired from the start was the heightened soundscape, which I assume is meant to mirror the sensitivity of Joaquin Phoenix’s Joe. Conversations and footsteps here have a sharpness like glass, permeating the intimate diegesis and making you ill at ease about the protagonist’s fortunes and state of mind. This becomes starker as the film lurches on, until the coldness of the approach resembles the deadness of the people and their worlds. The spectrality of sound becomes imbedded in the spectrality of vision. Just as the common noises of the land take on an otherworldly resonance, so, too, do the objects that the wandering eye notices. They are amplified as comforters of the beaten soul. Distractions against the memories that plague and distress, and manifest outside of the mind. The medium itself seeks to filter out the traumas in manageable ways, but is also aware of the task’s futility. It is, and always will be, an ongoing battle that has no foolproof solution. You may try to ignore a song’s verse, but the song will continue to play its tune. The air vibrates with its vagrant melody.
The form is challenging and superbly executed, and, there is no doubt that Phoenix rises to the occasion on all counts. Yet the content is less satisfying. While I was watching this, my focus was intent, and my interest unwavering. I was soaking in every particle of Ramsay’s vision. But there was little in terms of emotional connection. I think the nihilistic strains of this story held me at a remove, nor have I been traumatized enough in life to be viscerally triggered by Joe’s demons. I was merely the spectator without a specified role, watching a dead world decay even more. And maybe that’s okay. Not everyone is shocked by the same things, or needs to be. A recognition of the film medium’s capacity to crawl into diseased realms is, sometimes, quite enough.