There are moments of great acting and then there are moments that are beyond superlatives. Such is Joaquin Phoenix's commanding of the screen during Lynne Ramsay's fourth feature film, adapted by Ramsay herself from a novel by Jonathan Ames. You Were Never Really Here – as the title suggests – is a story of missing elements.

Phoenix plays Joe, a monosyllabic man of physicality: a man of contradictions and a war veteran haunted by post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a specialist in a very narrow field of employment – hired by various nefarious criminals and dubious characters to track down missing girls. He leaves no trace behind, which obviously appeals to his employers. When he is hired to track down the missing daughter of a politician (Alex Manette), it initially appears that all has gone well. But soon he is sucked into a hellish environment of child prostitution, extreme violence and moral decay.

There are two crucial relationships at the heart of the film. That of Joe and the kidnapped daughter (Ekaterina Samsonov) and that of Joe and his elderly mother, played by Judith Roberts – with some amusing references to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960). Through the dual prisms of these two women, we learn about Joe's skewered morality. Ramsay is keen to reveal very little to begin with, we slowly learn of his traumatic past via hallucinogenic flashbacks to his youth. There's no guide to this narrative, you are left alone with it's sudden plunge into a dream-like world of destruction.

Comparisons with Taxi Driver (1976) have been made and are unavoidable. Though Ramsay's picture shares some of its DNA with Martin Scorsese's masterpiece, it takes those influences in a different direction. It's a character study where it's protagonist is missing, in a physical and mental sense. There's a massive amount of tension, aided by a stunning Jonny Greenwood score (his second great score of the last few months after Phantom Thread (2017) ).

Visually, Ramsay throws you into a grubby, claustrophobic world which occasionally threatens to leave its dark-hued, New York environment and head into the light, but never quite surfaces – though Joe does in one deep-dive moment that sees him submerge and then rebirth himself. One sequence, which in an action film would be depicted as a triumphant sucker-punch towards a high death count, is entirely shown via CCTV cameras, leaving you under no illusions to its brutal interpretation of reality.

Joe's avenging weapon of choice, a ball-peen hammer, gives you a character in itself. It means business. Phoenix anchors the visuals and the overwhelmingly bleak subject matter, in a performance that internalises all of the pain that's felt by Joe, his physical bulk betraying his every awkward glance and half-uttered sentence. It's his latest great performance in a run that has seen him work with some of American cinemas greatest modern voices, such as Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze.

Acclaimed at the Cannes film festival last year with Phoenix winning best actor – indeed, it received a seven-minute standing ovation – it's perhaps too esoteric for some and ambiguous for others, but for its deceptively brief 90 minutes run-time it plunges you into the abyss and quietly grabs you by the throat. It's a quite stunning achievement.