2014, R, 117 mins.
2014, R, 117 mins.
Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom / Tye Sheridan as Gary / Gary Poulter as Wade / Ronnie Gene Blevins as Willie
Directed by David Gordon Green / Written by Gary Hawkins
I don’t think that there is a more schizophrenic actor working today than Nicolas Cage.
For every one
of his past superlative performance successes (LEAVING LAS VEGAS, MATCHSTICK MEN,
ADAPTATION) there’s been many noteworthy stinkers (BANGKOK
DANGEROUS, THE WICKER MAN, TRESPASS,
SEASON OF THE WITCH).
Sadly, we have been witness to more egregiously awful Nicolas Cage
films/performances as of late than good, but along comes a JOE, a somber,
deeply unsettling, meditative, harshly violent, and richly atmospheric
Southern Gothic drama that reminds us of the type of powerful talent Cage
is when compelled to be. In
actuality, Cage’s masterfully underplayed and nuanced turn here could
not be anymore different than his recent string of embarrassing turns in
front of the camera; JOE is a triumph and proud return to form for the
Oscar winning actor.
also a stunningly realized return to form for director David Gordon Green,
who seems to have partaken in many an odd career detour (much like Cage
himself) as of late. After
making a proverbial splash in fantastic indie fare like GEORGE WASHINGTON,
ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and UNDERTOW, he astounded his fanbase by then making
the decidedly more mainstream Hollywood stoner comedy PINEAPPLE
EXPRESS (a rock solid action comedy, to be sure), but then
followed that up with easily forgettable films like the chronically
misguided fantasy comedy YOUR HIGHNESS
and the nearly unwatchable Jonah Hill vehicle THE SITTER.
Thankfully, Green returns to his esoteric roots in JOE in
the manner in which he creates a sense of stark immediacy and texture with
his rural settings while, at the same time, diving headfirst into the
unique headspaces of his blue collar characters that gives this film such
a stark sense of verisimilitude. Very
few films from 2014 have felt as lived-in and authentic as what’s on
display in JOE.
is Joe Ransom, a man that, based on appearance and mannerisms alone, seems
to have a dark and seedy past. This
man is bad news: he’s a chronic drinker, notorious gambler, loose with
many a woman, and seems to harbor an unending feud with a local hothead
(Ronnie Gene Blevins) that appears like it can boil over into heated
violence at any moment. Even
though Joe is by no means a perfect man, he does manage to overcome his
nagging character faults and personal woes by being, for the most part, a
fair and honorable people person that treats those that he employs with
loyal fairness. His runs a
group of ragtag laborers that are hired by local lumber companies to
poison trees (a profession that, frankly, I had no idea even existed).
Joe's workers like him and he appreciates them in kind, which makes
his occupational existence fairly grounded and lacking in tension.
semblance of normalcy for Joe is thrown a curveball by the appearance of a
new kid in town named Gary (Tye Sheridan, the wonderfully natural young
actor from THE TREE OF LIFE and MUD)
that seems to express a keen interest in joining Joe’s crew.
Although initially reluctant with taking on a new crewmember
that’s so young, Joe develops a fondness for Gary’s wherewithal and
strong work ethic and hires him. Gary’s
life, though, seems almost more pathetically cruel and sad than Joe’s. He lives in an abandoned and dilapidated house with his
mother, sister, and father, Wade (Gary Poulter), the latter that just may
be the most toxically dislikeable and unsavory alcoholic character ever
to appear in a movie. Wade’s
daily life operates on three tangents: (1) Savagely beating his son whenever
he feels compelled to, (2) parading around town inebriated at every waking
moment, and (3) taking Gary’s work earnings and blowing it on booze.
The more Joe bares witness to Gary’s emotional and physical
suffering the less willing he is to ignore it and do nothing about it.
Faced with mounting moral pressure, Joe decides to intervene, even
if it means more unwanted upheaval in his already tumultuous life.
the bravura work of cinematographer Tim Orr (who has shot all of Green’s
last films), JOE takes on a rough, rugged, and bleak portrait of its
characters that are on the lower end of the socio-economic wavelength.
This, combined with sound location shooting that brings such a
sense unruly immediacy to the proceedings, allows for Green’s film
breathe with so much intimacy. Moe
importantly, Green places viewers squarely in the mindsets of his deeply
flawed and bewildered characters and always manages to make us feel the
overwhelming pressures and sense of daily unease that these people are
burdened with. I love how
Green never places judgment on his personas: he’s a confident and
trustworthy enough of a filmmaker to believe in his audiences to make up
their own minds about the worth and creed of people like Joe and the code
of honor they try to adhere to everyday while battling hardships few of us
will ever understand. Joe is
a man prone to animalistic violence, for certain, but he’s still a
principled man that wants to right wrongs where he sees them, which makes
him such a richly fascinating character study.
Green’s modulated shooting style allows for the performances to shine
through and rule the day. Cage has not been this strapping and effective in a role in
years as he taps deep into the recesses of his character that is beset by
strange contradictions. So
many of Cage’s more infamously wretched performances have relied on his
histrionic mannerisms and overly caffeinated camera mugging (which,
depending on the role, can be either welcoming...or an obtrusive burden), but
here there’s leanness to his performance that never requires overzealous
or over-the-top leanings. He’s
paired resoundingly well with Sheridan, who was so shockingly genuine in
MUD with Matthew McConaughey last year, and here he gives an equally mesmerizing
turn playing opposite Cage. Sheridan
just might be one of the more attune and discipline young actors working
today; there’s rarely a wrong or false note in any of his
needs to be said regarding Gary Poulter’s work as Gary’s sickeningly
abusive father. JOE received
some press for the casting of Poulter, who was a real-life homeless and alcoholic man that was suffering from chronic illness before he was found
dead in a shallow body of water in September of last year.
If anything, this seems like a cruel manner of life imitating art
and vice versa, as Poulter is so stunningly immersed in his role of a
vile and reprehensible old coot that there’s rarely a moment when you
doubt his credibility on screen. There
have been many unpardonable human beings that are beyond reform and
rehabilitation that have occupied movies before, but Gary is on a whole
other twisted playing field of malevolence in itself. A posthumous Oscar nomination just could be a likely
possibility for Poulter here.
JOE I was constantly reminded that something the late Roger Ebert once
said about depressing movies: Only bad movies are depressing.
JOE is a work that’s so austere and miserable that you want to
immediately go home after screening it and hug the ones that matter to you
and not let go. The film,
beyond investing in wanton human misery, is also punctuated by moments of
barbaric violence that will leave the most desensitized of filmgoer
anxiously flinching at times. Yet,
for as pessimistic as this film and its characters are, JOE is emerges as
a small-scale masterpiece of observant and moody filmmaking economy.
It thrusts you into its seedy and corrupt world in ways so few
films do to the point where you feel like uneasy eyewitnesses to the
events on screen.
And, yes, just how satisfying is it to see Nicolas Cage jog our collective memories of the types of brilliant performances he gave years ago? All of those recent career choices of his - plagued with roles that showed the once titanic and empowered screen actor at his thespian worst – are seemingly forgiven now with his tour de force work in JOE. Welcome back, sir. We missed you.