Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulson, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka.
Not to be confused with John G Avildsen’s blistering 1970 drama of the same name, which starred the late Peter Boyle as a viciously unrepentant bigot, David Gordon Green’s gritty drama taps into the Southern noir aesthetic with its themes of masculinity, revenge, retribution and violence. It also mixes these more adult themes with the tropes of the coming of age tale. And more importantly, it also gives Nicolas Cage one of his best roles for quite some time.
I’m still not quite convinced about Cage as an actor, although there was a period in the mid 90s when he made some pretty good action films, like The Rock and Con-Air. But recently he seems to have become stuck in some derivative and formulaic straight to DVD action films that have hardly tested his talents. So it’s nice to see him actually make a bit of an effort in his latest film, which is a fairly gritty and hard hitting drama.
Cage plays the eponymous Joe, a former convict trying to earn an honest living. His small company poisons trees in forests to make way for new growth timber. He usually hires unskilled labour. On a whim he hires 15-year old Gary (Tye Sheridan, who was superb in Mud) on a temporary basis. Gary comes from a dysfunctional, nomadic family ruled with an iron fist by his father Wade (Gary Poulson), an embittered, abusive alcoholic, and a nasty vindictive piece of work with no redeeming features at all. Wade regularly beats Gary, and steals whatever money he manages to earn.
Gary is looking for a father figure he can trust, while Joe sees something of a younger version of himself in the boy. Over time he grows fond of the troubled boy and is slowly drawn into protecting him. However, as an ex-con trying to go straight, Joe has his own problems to deal with, and can hardly afford to get caught up in the struggle between Gary and his father.
Adapted from the novel written by Larry Brown, Joe is a gritty drama dealing with the search for redemption, masculinity, family, and what it means to be a man, and has been directed in nonjudgmental and compassionate fashion by Green (the low budget independent comedy Prince Avalanche, etc) who turns an unflinching eye on the hardscrabble life style of some of his down and out characters. With films like George Washington to his credit, Gordon is familiar with this milieu of small town life and marginalised characters, although the darker tone at times recalls Winter’s Bone.
Cage reins in his usual mannerisms and twitchy acting style to deliver a credible and more restrained performance here that reminds us that he can occasionally deliver the goods in front of the camera, especially when given the right role. He is not merely phoning in his performance here.
As good as Cage is as the conflicted and self-destructive anti-hero though, here he is comprehensively outshone by both Sheridan and Poulson. Sheridan backs up his memorable debut with another solid and mature performance as the troubled Gary who learns lessons in what it takes to become a man. But the stand out performance comes from the nonprofessional in Poulson, in his one and only screen role. Green discovered Poulson living on the streets of Austin and cast him in his movie, getting him to basically draw upon his own bitter life experiences for his stunning performance here. But Poulson died soon afterwards, dying as he lived, homeless on the streets of a major American city.
Joe is a powerful and compelling drama, and its narrative moves forward with an incredible sense of tension and is permeated with a growing pervasive sense of doom and hopelessness. The occasional bursts of violence are quite shocking. Tim Orr’s cinematography bathes this grim and bleak setting in sun drenched colours that recalls the early work of Terrence Malick.