‘Joe’ might be a moving and impressive film, but its primary achievement lies in rehabilitating its director and star. David Gordon Green drifted from his arthouse roots to comedies like ‘Pineapple Express’ and ‘Your Highness’, but has finally reclaimed his distinct indie voice here. As for Nicolas Cage, we’ve all seen the GIFs. Fortunately, ‘Joe’ proves that there’s still a major talent behind his legendary overacting.
The film itself is a dark and messy human drama contained in a Southern Gothic aesthetic. Cage stars as the titular Joe, a broken man with a checkered past that’s only whispered about around the edges of his new, more controlled life of excess. He spends his days poisoning trees so that they can be torn down legally by a lumber company. It’s a sketchy job, but honest work that Joe is happy to provide to his deeply depressed rural community. Sure, everyone including Joe uses the money for boozing and whoring, but at least they earned it somewhat honestly.
Joe’s dreary existence of work and filthy play is disrupted when he hires 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) and becomes enamored with the hard-working kid whose money is routinely stolen by his abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). Joe tries to help the boy live right, teach him a few survival lessons, and maybe even redeem himself in the process. Of course, the world these characters inhabit is simply too harsh and unforgiving for any sort of soul-building happy ending. Nope, Joe and Gary’s relationship is merely a momentary bright spot before things get horrible again.
Green’s early movies like ‘George Washington‘ and ‘All the Real Girls’ very much came out of the same world as this one. Granted, they were far less harsh, but the director has always had a fascination for rotted-out rural settings and the surreal beauty to be found in those environments. Working with his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr, Green finds a poetry to the poverty he depicts. Most of the cast are untrained locals (including Gary Poulter, whose magnificent performance will never be followed up since he died shortly after production wrapped), and Green clearly enjoys letting them improvise to add further rich textures to the world. For much of the running time, Green is merely world-building. He lingers on Joe and Gary interacting and finds a certain nobility to their lives, laced with little touches of the surreal comedy that defined the Hollywood half of the filmmaker’s career.
At the center is Cage, and while it would have been all too easy for the actor to break out some of his finest ham and cheese in sequences where he chain smokes while chopping up a freshly killed animal, he plays things small and real. There’s a genuine pain to the performance that’s visible in his eyes at all times, so much so that there’s no real need for much exploration of the character’s back story. Cage wears it all on his face and delivers a magnificent performance of a broken man struggling against his most basic instincts to be a good one. It’s the type of work that Cage does every few years in films like this or ‘Adaptation’, confirming that the man does in fact know what he’s doing and is probably in on the joke when he cuts loose in ridiculous flicks like ‘The Wicker Man’.
Everyone surrounding Cage is strong as well, especially Tye Sheridan (who completely fulfills the promise he showed in ‘Mud’ and ‘The Tree of Life’) and the aforementioned Poulter. As much energy as Green spends crafting evocative images, he puts just as much work into his characters. The actors and filmmaker have created a genuine world here that feels like it will continue to live and breathe once the movie is complete.
Oddly, where ‘Joe’ disappoints slightly is in the last half, when all the world and character building finally turns into a narrative and a moral. Fortunately, Green never lets the movie devolve into painfully obvious melodrama. The film turns into a parable – a poignant one that suits the style. However, in a strange way, none of the concluding sequences that are filled with meaning and action can match the poignancy and atmospheric enchantment of the loosely connected episodes that set up the pay-offs. As far as flaws for a movie to have, that’s a pretty easy cross to bear.
‘Joe’ is a rich and wonderful film that finally returns David Gordon Green to his roots after the somewhat bungled ‘Prince Avalanche’ and provides all Nicolas Cage skeptics with proof of his chops. It’s not a masterpiece, but it is a fascinating, moving and visually evocative piece of work that serves as an ideal indie antidote to the glossy blockbusters that will be playing on all the theater screens surrounding it.