Directed by: David Gordon Green.
Written by: Gary Hawkins based on the novel by Larry Brown.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Joe Ransom), Tye Sheridan (Gary), Gary Poulter (Wade), Ronnie Gene Blevins (Willie), Heather Kafka (Lacy), Sue Rock (Merle), Adriene Mishler (Connie), Dana Freitag (Sue), Brenda Isaacs Booth (Mother Jones), AJ Wilson McPaul (Sheriff Earl).
It is easy to make fun of Nicolas Cage. He does little to help his own cause as a serious actor when he seemingly goes years between great performance and does one paycheck movie after another. He goes so long between great performances, filling out his resume with needless sequels, would-be blockbusters, and direct-to-video (or close to it) crap that it’s easy to forget how great he can be. But just when you’re willing to write him off yet again, he delivers another terrific performance that you cannot imagine another actor capable of pulling off. His last such role was in Werner Herzog’s insane Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (2009) that ranks among the most inspired, insane performances in recent memory. And now comes his role in David Gordon Green’s Joe. Again, this is not a subtle performance – Cage doesn’t do subtle performances – but his larger than life performance in this movie elevates the entire movie. And the great thing about Joe is that there are two other performances in the film that manage to keep up with him.
Cage has the title role of Joe, a hard drinking ex-con with a violent temper he struggles to keep under control. When the movie opens, he seems to be doing a good job of that – basically by isolating himself from those around him. But he does have his own business, and seems reasonably successful at it. When he meets young Gary (the immensely talented Tye Sheridan last seen in Mud), a teenager with an abusive, alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter), who cannot support his family, he takes pity on him and hires him. Slowly, but surely, Joe starts to care about Gary – but when allows himself to become emotionally involved with Gary, he also finds it harder to control his other emotions – the ones that get him into trouble.
If the film is a comeback for Cage, it also marks a comeback for David Gordon Green. After four excellent, indie films (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow and Snow Angels), and one successful studio comedy (Pineapple Express), Green looked to be one of the most interesting, young directors in America. Then he made two god-awful comedies in one year – Your Highness and The Sitter – and he seemed adrift, not knowing what to do next. Last year, he made Prince Avalanche, a decent film that tried, not altogether successfully, to combine his character driven dramas, with a buddy comedy. With Joe, while it’s not quite as good as his best films, Green is hopefully back on track. As with all of his films, Green is more comfortable in the films quieter moments – when he’s concentrating on his characters and their day-to-day lives, and less comfortable with narrative. The weakest moments of Joe are when a narrative is forced upon the characters – involving a lowlife criminal named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins – convincingly slimy) and his quest for vengeance against not only Joe, but Gary as well – for two separate incidents when both of them beat him up. At times, the movie veers a little too far of course in its depiction of its poor, Southern characters (you could call it poverty porn at times) and the climax of the film is a violent mess. Still, for most of the movie, Green is back to his old form, making a visually interesting, dark film about these characters, struggling to do the right thing.
He is aided greatly by Cage’s performance as Joe. Cage doesn’t rely on his normal bag of nervous ticks, but that doesn’t mean he’s still not playing a larger than life character, because he is. Joe is the type of character who is always the center of attention – he walks into a room, and even while doing nothing attracts all eyes to him. When Cage is in the zone like this, it can be difficult to keep up with him. It is remarkable than that young Tye Sheridan is more able to hold his own with him. In just three movies – Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Jeff Nichols’ Mud and now this one, Sheridan has established himself as one of the best young actors around. While Joe may superficially resemble Mud – they are both about young men taken under the wing of an ex-con – the similarities between the movies, and the characters Sheridan plays, are only skin deep. Mud is more than fairy tale than anything else, where Joe is about as far away from a fairy tale as you can get. Sheridan plays a kid who wants desperately be adult, but is still a child. Perhaps even more remarkable than Sheridan’s performance is the one by Gary Poulter as Wade. Apparently, the late Poulter was an actual homeless man that Green found on location – and he loved him so much, he gave him this major role. That’s probably why Poulter doesn’t hit a false note as a man whose demons overwhelm him. He is a mean, nasty, abusive drunk – and Poulter is great. Too bad we’ll never see him in another role.
Joe is not a fun film to watch. It is dark and violent from beginning to end. But it is a film that contains three great performances, and for the most part is expertly directed by Green, who really seems to want to redeem himself for his recent failures. With Joe he’s back on track. And hopefully, it won’t be another four years before we get to see another performance this good from Nicolas Cage. When Cage is on – which he is in this film – there are few actors as good as he is.