Occasionally, when eclectic director David Gordon Green is not working on a studio film, which severely limits his creative input, he turns to middle-of-nowhere America to tell stories about regular Joes -no pun intended- and their singular experiences (Undertow, George Washington, Snow Angels). Visually, he is inclined to take advantage of the vast landscapes and wooded areas the countryside has to offer. There, he places characters that more often than not include young men searching for a role model and the older fellows who either provide guidance or become terrible influences. Most recently, Emile Hirsch's manchild behavior clashed with Paul Rudd's self-absorbed comedic masculinity in Prince Avalanche, a charming and minimalist tale of two men working in the forest.
In his latest work, Joe, this recurring premise takes on greater stylistic proportions and it allows the director to elicit top-notch performances from his two leads. Better than he has been in many years, Nicolas Cage plays the eponymous title role, a rugged anti-hero who will not brag about all the good he does in spite of his violent past. Joe runs a small operation that involves spraying a chemical solution to eradicate unwanted trees in the area. His team, conformed only of African American men, is loyal to the core. They know Joe is a man of his word and values honesty above all else. In this Southern town, it is also well known that, though he doesn’t look for it, Joe is not afraid of getting in trouble should the situation call for it.
Wandering around the broken down road, Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old tough boy, soon runs across Joe and his men and immediately asks for a job. Perhaps seeing himself in the boy, or perhaps out of pity, Joe agrees. The kid is a hard worker; he is willing to struggle to earn his pay. The problem is his abusive alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter), a selfish parasite whose single priority in life is figure out the source of his next swig. After purposelessly giving the old man a chance and witnessing the vicious treatment the boy must endure, Joe takes him under his wing. Gary looks up to him, and quickly finds a reinvigorating hope simpley from having someone who sincerely cares for him. The generational gap between the two creates a compelling connection, not quiet a father/son dynamic, but a heartfelt friendship.
An alcoholic himself, Joe has issues of his own, which range from selflessly helping everyone around him, to keeping his dog from attacking visitors, and dealing with Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), an
annoying maniac who has a pending feud with him. Joe’s no-nonsense convictions are undeniably virtuous, but sometimes such degree of righteousness can
prove to be a dangerous liability. Cage undoubtedly deserves praise for playing such a silent character with unpretentious honesty.
Drinking beer, smoking cigarets, and beating up cops who, according to him, unjustifiably harass him is what Joe does, but there is kindness underneath the rough skin, and the Hollywood star brings it all out convincingly. This is definitely a redeeming work for an actor who seemed to have lost his way in a senseless pursuit of meaningless roles.
Opposite Cage is the young Tye Sheridan, whose similar role in last year’s Mud
placed him under the independent film industry's spotlight. The young
actor is even more marvelous here. Seeing the darkness in people from an early age has definitely shaped Gary’s life. Self-sufficient, driven, and brave,
he wants nothing more than to have a chance at becoming a good man, and his only shot at it is by Joe’s side. Adding another great performance to his short, but impressive resume, Sheridan is on his way to becoming an important young figure in the medium.
Adapted for the screen by Gary Hawkins from the novel of the same name by Larry Brown, Gordon Green certainly wasn’t able to reinvent the genre or craft a story that shines for its uniqueness, but he is in top form here. At times gritty, others ironically funny, the film works on all levels and even gives the filmmaker a chance to experiment with interesting narrative devices, such as several music and voice over driven expressionist montages.
Yet, if one looks to single out the best quality of this outstandingly
entertaining film, it would have to be the naturalistic acting the filmmaker managed to get out of every single person on screen. From the shopkeeper, to Joe’s
workers, to the evil Poulter, who is a real life homeless man, and all of the locals, there is not one that feels fabricated. That alone elevates a
familiar story to something incredibly memorable. A rebirth for both actor and director, Joe is a powerful slice of Americana painted with sophisticated brush, and it shows that, like Joe himself, Cage and Gordon Green’s talent is a fierce dog with many scars, but at least it’s still alive.
Joe Opens in Select Theaters, VOD and on iTunes Friday, April 11