GLASWEGIAN director Lynne Ramsay doesn’t make a film very often but when she does it’s something very special indeed. Her latest is certainly no different. Following on from attention-grabbing works like Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar and We Need To Talk About Kevin, this is a scalpel-sharp, profoundly atmospheric tale of one man lurking in the shadows carrying out heinous work for the right reasons.

On the face of it this is a hitman movie, following Joaquin Phoenix’s brooding killer Joe like a voyeuristic onlooker. He’s a traumatised army veteran with an almost primal skill for carrying out violence, usually with the use of a hammer that he wields like an extension of his own arm.

But as repulsive as his work is, he carries it out with a kind of twisted justification: he tracks down missing girls who often have been sold into the sex trade and deals with the perpetrators without a second’s hesitation or remorse.

However, when his latest job spins out of all control and he inadvertently uncovers a conspiracy, he finds himself more emotionally attached to young victim Nina (one-to-watch newcomer Ekaterina Samsonov) than he had intended.

As ever with Ramsay’s work, you don’t so much watch You Were Never Really Here as you do bask in it, get swept up in its precisely wound madness, feel engulfed by its very atmosphere that’s at once deeply unsettling and irresistibly alluring. It’s a bold piece of filmmaking that takes what we think we know about this sort of story and contorts it out of all recognition in the best of ways.

She makes Jonathan Ames’s difficult book feel wholly cinematic, marrying Jonny Greenwood’s fearlessly striking score and a cavalcade of other noises to the arresting imagery to create a sensorial experience that makes you feel like you shouldn’t be looking at it but that you have to nonetheless.

Yet for all its violent and oppressive atmosphere it’s actually a film of shrewd suggestion more than in-your-face vulgarity or sensationalism. Ramsay understands that it’s often what you don’t see that can be most effective; the various violent acts – the thud of a hammer on a skull, a gunshot that sprays blood on the walls – mostly happen off-camera, around a corner or in rooms into which you can’t quite see. It forces us to keep our wits about us and be ready for whatever dangers the film will elegantly slide into next.

It’s quite the brilliant piece of cinematic sleight of hand that makes you think you’ve seen something more than you actually have but with the same effect, if not more, than if you’d witness it plainly on-screen. And what are the consequences of the violence, particularly on a damaged individual who is at once consumed by and perpetuates it? The film forces us to confront these kinds of questions, however difficult it may be.

Phoenix gives what may very well be his finest ever performance as the menacing yet compelling Joe, doing that most difficult thing of making a killer seem in any way sympathetic, staring out from a heavily bearded face as he cleanses the world of those lowlifes that live comfortably at the bottom of the barrel.

His performance particularly evokes Robert De Niro’s legendary Travis Bickle from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, as does the seed cityscape that the director creates for the film, but it feels like a soaked-up influence rather than any sort of copycat. This is unequivocally a Lynne Ramsay picture painted with uncompromising brush strokes, one that keeps the viewer constantly on edge as it builds like a tornado towards a haunting finale that showcases just why she is one of the finest and most singular filmmakers around.