by Philip Price
David Gordon Green is a director unafraid to explore the entire range of human emotion and while Hollywood sometimes requires that he segment these separate emotions into individual films Green has always been capable of dealing in the honesty of the human spirit. It would have been hard to find people who agreed with that assessment in 2011 when he released not one, but two critically panned straight-up comedies (“Your Highness” and “The Sitter”) one of which I understand the harsh reception, the other I think is sorely underrated. After taking a year or so off it seems Green re-evaluated what direction he was taking his career in and has since crafted two, lower-key character studies that have been able to access that full range of emotion he likes to explore rather than restricting him to the archetypes of slapstick, situational or conversation purely intended to make the audience laugh. While last year’s “Prince Avalanche” was a subdued little slice of life story that felt relaxed, improvised and more a quiet concentration on the point of it all, “Joe” is a character study as meticulously plotted and thought over as an extravagant poem meeting all the requirements of its goal scheme. “Joe” is not only about its title character but the place in the world in which he resides and the people around him that influence his decisions, those who he oversees and whose quality of their life he determines and the community that is both fed up and inebriated with him. As played by Nicolas Cage this outdoor, rugged, man among men character becomes a kind of Christ-figure to these small town people looking to be saved from their depressing, trash-riddled lives and it is only in Cage's furrowed brow and hardened soul that we see how Joe wants to try and live, but that he can't bring himself to be what the standards of society expect of him and so he rebels and he continues to rebel because that is the nature of his surroundings, no doubt of his upbringing and he can't help but to continue to think of himself as simultaneously better than those around him while never good enough to break free of this place he's found himself trapped in. I was riveted by “Joe,” moved by its performances and intrigued by its interest in these people’s lives. I think it is safe to say Green is back to doing what he does best.
In the opening shot of the film we meet Gary (Tye Sheridan) as he talks to his drunken father, Wade (Gary Poulter who's real life story is as haunting and disturbing as the one he portrays here), an alkie and a complete degenerate who beats his family that also includes a wife and daughter as well who he would take no regret in pimping out for more booze. If he is this kind of man to his family, this kind of disgusting presence you can only imagine how he might treat those he has no emotional connection to in desperate times and when the answer to that question arrives on screen you want to look away. As much as Joe is the titular character, protagonist, fractured hero of the story Wade is the by all-accounts villain that while seeming all bad, and he pretty much is as there is no valid excuse for the way he behaves, is not the one dimensional antagonist of this southern gothic tale. Gary is his offspring, but how this child came out as ambitious as he did with an attitude highlighted by stubborn courage is something to be marveled at altogether. He sees the path his father is traveling and instead of allowing it to influence him he takes it as a sign of what not to do and this pushes him to go out, look for work, make money and do what his father can't do which is take care of his family. Gary comes across Joe who heads up a crew of men that is clearing trees off the land for the owner. They are dead trees, trees no good to anyone yet even in this instance Joe sees it as killing, sees it as something he could likely be doing better, but doesn't have the care or ambition, as Gary does, to look for anything else. Gary needs a job and Joe is willing to oblige as what he has to offer is hard work and can use as many hands as possible. Around town, Joe seems to be known as a good guy, a respectable man, but a dedicated drinker himself and someone who can stir up trouble from time to time. It is when Gary comes into his life that he begins to see himself as something more, a role model even and a way for him to do right for all the times his instincts have pointed him to do wrong. It is this developing relationship that forms the core of “Joe” and all the action that takes place around it only serve to ignite the demons Joe has to drive out.
Based on the 1992 novel by Larry Brown, Green knows how to capture the grit of the South and in this case, the heavily-forested landscape of Mississippi. The look of “Joe” is as important as any other aspect because it relays the authenticity of the story being presented. So much about the south has become clichéd and an easy target for mocking that it is easy to tell when someone who knows the area is influencing the atmosphere of the film and when it is being faked by a set decorator. It is the small things here that make you appreciate the quality of a small town, such as the radio forecasts heard in the background or the standard small talk dialogue that the old store owners default to in an attempt to try and make a connection with their varied customers. It is all here, all to the point you can almost smell the dusted tops of the cars and the stale wind that blows through the ancient houses some of these people remain in. It is this air of authenticity that seeps into the film and makes for the elements of the story to be all the more compelling. “Joe” isn't the first film to get this tone right as “Mud” and Jennifer Lawrence's breakout film, “Winter's Bone,” were both more poems with verses moved by the land than full-fledged dramas, but out of this sub-genre of films “Joe” is easily the most complicated plot-wise and arguably the most compelling because of it. That is not to say the mysticism of “Mud” or the portrait painted by Lawrence's Ree are to be undermined by something as simple as more complicated plotting, but when meshed with the strong hand of director Green and the performances of not only Cage and Sheridan, but that of Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins and Adriene Mishler you get a fully fleshed out story with the emotion at the core of it that really allows for the entire film, as a complete package to be all the more moving.
When we break it down to its more basic points for standing out among this current crop of Southern cinema though, the one outstanding factor is the performance of Cage. I am of an age where I never really had the opportunity to see what Cage really had in him as an actor. The first big hit he had by the time I really began to decide I had an invested interest in film was “Gone in 60 Seconds” and since I had no older siblings and my parents weren't much for movies I never fell in love with his string of late 90's hits and despite the fact that since the turn of the millennium the man has mainly turned in performances that are completely forgettable, over the top or basically work for hire parts that he is given because of his name we will every now and then get an “Adaptation” or a “Matchstick Men” or “Kick-Ass” and even “The Weather Man,” which never received much love and is mainly forgotten these days, but I thought was rather insightful and moving when I was 18. The point is, despite my love of film my age and the era I was brought into seeing movies has never really allowed me to know the Nicolas Cage that pulled out all the stops for “Raising Arizona” or won an Academy Award for “Leaving Las Vegas” and so that youth of today have no idea that the man could even come close to something relied upon as a credible actor. “Joe” turns that stereotype around as Cage turns in what is easily some of the best work he's done in years and most certainly one of the best leading performances of his career in a film that not only serves the purposes of giving Cage a showcase but also kind of doubles as a tale of how both the actor and the character can be their own worst enemy. As Joe, Cage embodies the tortured soul, the guy who wants to have a good time and who wants to live his life the way he'd like with no interference from anyone that could lead him to circumstances where his choices will prove to be his downfall. We see this illustrated through a romantic relationship with Mishler's Connie, but it is through the bond formed with Sheridan's Gary that Joe realizes living the way he has will amount to little to be proud of when there is no will left in his mind and body to go on. Sheridan is a gifted young actor and the way he slips into these ruined adolescents is both charming and fleeting as we can see the maturing of his mind and physical features beginning to take place making us only hope he continues to make the intelligent choices in his films as he has so far. Their relationship is at the heart of “Joe” and at its most intense peak, this is a film both worthwhile in its substance and noteworthy for what it will do for Cage.