Director David Gordon Green is best known for comedies "Pineapple Express" and the television show “Eastbound and Down,” but in in his new film "Joe," starring Nicholas Cage, he returns to the rawer indie dramas, like "All The Real Girls" and "George Washington," which started his career. The result is a film rich with gritty ambience and powerful performances, but it’s adherence to a more natural style ultimately strips the film of the emotional punch you would anticipate from a narrative so latent with drama.
The screenplay by Gary Hawkins is based on the critically acclaimed 1991 novel by Larry Brown. "Joe" takes place in a small town in the south, where everybody knows each other and probably has some kind of long storied history, for better or worse. Cage plays Joe Ransom, a man with a troubled history and his own set of principles, trying desperately to keep his demons at bay. Things get complicated after he takes pity on a poor teenager named Gary (Tye Sheridan), by hiring him on to his crew that poisons trees for a lumber company. Joe initially tries to keep some distance between him and the kid, but that proves to become more difficult after meeting the boy’s ne’er-do-well, drunken, abusive father and witnessing the incredible heart, perseverance and unbroken spirit of the boy. Soon, Joe and Gary create a strong friendship/surrogate father – son relationship. But it’s the strength of their relationship that makes Joe more vulnerable to his own violent tendencies. His need to safeguard Gary from harm puts Joe on a dangerous path.
One of the most remarkable achievements of the film is the creation of the small town. We get to know Joe’s character through his interactions with the colorful locals. It seems strange to even call the supporting ensemble a “cast” as they feel so authentic. The viewer becomes a fly-on-the-wall at the local convenience store or the town brothel. This was achieved by using both lesser known actors and real people found at their shooting location in Austin, Texas. The townspeople feel as if they’re all under the same drunken haze, filled with repeated stories, half–jokes and not even a blink of surprise when characters are confronted with otherwise absurd situations. The generally relaxed atmosphere of the town serves another purpose as it lulls the viewer to an uneasy understanding, only to be jarred by moments of shocking violence.
The strong performances are not limited to the ancillary characters. It can be difficult to separate Nicholas Cage, the skilled actor, from the human Internet meme he’s now become; and certainly some of his more recent roles haven’t helped. However, in "Joe," Cage completely enraptures himself in this matchstick of a character. He is a man whose need to protect what is meaningful to him, is both his most noble and most destructive trait. Watching his performance either reminds the viewer that they’re watching Nicholas Cage act in a movie or makes them reminiscent about how consistently good he used to be. Or, at best, let's them only see the character of Joe.
With respect to Cage, the most stand-out performances are Sheridan, who’s only other film roles were in the Terrence Malick film "Tree of Life" and the indie drama "Mud," as Gary and Gary Poulter, as Gary’s dad, Wade. In contrast to Cage, their relative “unknown” status allowed them to be seen strictly as the embodiment of their character. Poulter, who actually died in March 2013, wasn’t even an actor. He was a guy at a bus stop who saw the casting director, John Williams, when he was looking for locals for the movie. Still the amateur actor made the character of Wade villainous, despicable and pathetic. Sheridan posits a great heaviness of spirit to his performance of Gary, a kind of soulful vulnerability that you wouldn’t expect from such a young actor (he’s seventeen now). Sheridan is an absolute break-out actor, whom I fully expect to hear a lot from in the coming years.
Despite its nicely realized characters and ambience, Joe is not without its faults. Specifically, its faithfulness to a naturalistic tone makes the climax feel more underwhelming than what was being built up. What should be a poignant and powerful denouement comes off as matter-of-fact. I was expecting a gut punch, but walked away with more of a light tap.
Joe’s running time of 117 minutes is punctuated by moments of graphic violence involving both humans and animals, so it’s definitely not for the squeamish. But if you want a vivid and interesting depiction of what is referred to as the “rough south,” then you needn’t look any further than Joe.
By Adrian Vina
Rated R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content.