“Joe” unites a pair of talents somewhat on the comeback trail. David Gordon Green’s once-lofty critical reputation—the filmmaker was once lauded as a successor to Terrence Malick—took something of a hit after a left-turn into poorly-received studio comedies like “Your Highness” and "The Sitter," but this year’s “Prince Avalanche” seemed to mark a return to the lo-fi indies he made his name with. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage’s status as a major star and as one of his generation’s most acclaimed actors has been threatened in recent years by a series of low-rent pictures, seemingly taken for the paycheck alone, which have seen the actor increasingly descend into either self-parody, or deep boredom.
So one could have been forgiven for approaching their team-up with a little caution. But “Joe,” an adaptation of the novel by Larry Brown, and which premieres in competition at the Venice Film Festival today, is by some distance the strongest work either have done in a while. It’s not exactly doing anything new, but it’s a muscular and textured piece of work that shifts assuredly through tones and genre, features a rich and rewarding performance from Cage, and another excellent turn from his young co-star Tye Sheridan (“ The Tree Of Life,” “Mud”).
In advance of the screening, the latter film has been something of a comparison point—the premise, of an ex-con (Cage) in the Deep South befriending a troubled kid (Sheridan) whose family are in dire economic straits, seems to be eerily similar to Jeff Nichols’ acclaimed sleeper hit. There are certainly moments of crossover—snakes, sinister villains with a grudge, a climactic shootout. But Joe’s a very different character from Mud, and the film takes a very different tone.
From the first shot—in which Sheridan’s Gary admonishes his drunken father Wade (first-time actor Gary Poulter), who slaps him, only to receive a beating of his own from a pair of strangers—violence seeps out of every pore of “Joe” with almost any scene seemingly capable of breaking out into at best a scuffle, and at worst an exchange of gunfire. Even the local bar is decorated with pictures of rage-faced boxers, which is usually a prelude to someone getting their ass kicked. Joe himself seems like an avuncular, gentle kind of guy— aided by Cage's performance, the most dialed-down he’s been in a while—but when someone describes his dog as having a “devil inside him,” we know who they’re really talking about.
For the most part, he manages to keep his demons at bay, even calling the cops on himself after a bar fight, but every so often, as when he sets his dog on the animal that guards the local whorehouse, we see the man he works so hard to bury. He’s got a good woman (a nice turn by Adriene Mishler), but his only hope for salvation seems to come from Gary. And indeed, vice versa: while Poulter’s Wade has his moments of charm, Green only gradually reveals the exact rottenness of his drunken soul, and while Gary’s sense of family keeps him loyal, it’s clear that his new father figure is going to be much better for him.
All of this makes the film seem somewhat grim, and in places it can be. But it’s certainly lighter than Green’s “Snow Angels” or even “Undertow”—the director’s work in comedy the last few years is certainly in evidence here, particularly in an enjoyable extended sequence when Joe and Gary get drunk together while looking for a lost dog. There’s a loose, easy naturalism to the film’s feel (aided by the use of non-professional actors in some places), and a texture to the world and characters that makes the small town setting feel authentic and lived-in.
While the film flirts with a number of genres—melodrama, comedy, coming-of-age—it ultimately lands closest to being Green’s first western by the time it reaches its conclusion. But the shift into that direction is more deftly handled here than in the tone-breaking final shootout in “Mud,” with the filmmaker setting the seeds for that kind of violence early on. It might shift between tones, but it all feels of a piece. In part it’s thanks to typically excellent work from regular collaborators in DoP Tim Orr and composers David Wingo and Jeff McIllwain, and in part to Cage’s performance. He goes easy on the high volume and bug-eyes that have been something of a crutch of late (it helps that he’s buried behind a grizzly beard, for one), and makes Joe a thoroughly decent man who’s capable of some terrible things. Hopefully it bodes well for his work going forward.
Sheridan gets less screen time but more than holds his own, delivering a turn that’s very distinct from the one in “Mud”—a kid whose boyish excitement sometimes gets the best of him but who’s well on the way to become an impressive man. There’s also a strong villain in the shape of Ronnie Gene Plevins, who looks like Peter Sarsgaard and sounds, in places, eerily like Cage, while Poulter, as Gary’s father, is an incredible find too, as a hopeless drunk much less harmless than he initially appears. Sadly, he passed away not long after filming wrapped, but this is certainly a performance to be proud of.
There are a couple of missteps along the way—a montage over a monologue from Joe seems out of place and feels like it exists in order to more directly capture the source material. And Gary’s mother and sister feel undernourished as characters, particularly as the latter becomes more crucial in the closing stages. Again, “Joe” isn’t doing anything groundbreaking, but it’s a good story told very well. And by feeling a little like all of Green’s work to date, and yet not quite directly like any of them, it’s a satisfying culmination of the filmmaker’s career to date. We look forward to seeing where he goes next. [B+]