Director: David Gordon Green
Major Players: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Out Of Five: 3.5
My Nicolas Cage allergy is well-documented. His over-acting and track record of below-par films have wasted his abilities as an actor – we’ve all seen those wide eyes staring at the camera. In David Gordon Green’s Joe, it appears he might have done a McConaughey-esque about-face and gone down the indie route. Sadly, the films he has lined up don’t bear this out – which is a disappointment because he was probably on to something. This is his best piece of acting for years.
Young Gary (Tye Sheridan) has a dysfunctional family, living a nomadic existence on the edge of society. His father is a violent alcoholic, his mother a pot-head and his frightened younger sister is completely silent. He gets a job with a team of forest workers employed by Joe (Nicolas Cage), who are paid cash in hand for clearing trees. Joe has his own problems, one of them being a violent temper, although he’s found a balance of sorts in life. But it’s fragile and destined to be thrown out of kilter by Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter) ……
In truth, Joe and Wade are two sides of the same coin, with Wade showing how Joe would have turned out if he hadn’t taught himself restraint. Both like the bottle far too much, both have short tempers. But Wade regularly beats up his son to steal his earnings to pay for drink. He even kills a vagrant for a few dollars and a bottle of wine. It doesn’t take much to light Joe’s short fuse, but somehow he knows where to draw the line. It’s no wonder that Gary sees him as a father substitute – simultaneously similar and better – but still no saint.
The first half of the film poses a number of questions, much of which about Joe himself, and the answers emerge during the second half. Our interest in his character and his back-story is the main reason for watching this brooding, sometimes slow, Southern melodrama. And that speaks volumes for Cage’s performance. He’s sympathetic and clearly not a bad guy at heart, yet he does some dreadful things, one of them being letting his dog loose on another dog, knowing that his is a killer. The implication of mental illness is strong, although it’s never mentioned. A guy like Joe wouldn’t talk about such things, but he knows where his weakness lies.
His performance is let down by some occasionally clumsy direction, the most heavy handed being when Gary notices that Joe’s dog has a lot of scars. “But all the others are dead”, replies Joe, loading the words with far too much weight and with the camera full square on his face. Far less emphasis would have worked just as well – and the audience would still have got it! That said, David Gordon Green has significantly more focus in this film than his last outing, the rambling Prince Avalanche, even though they are both films that take their time.
There’s a sad post script to the film. It’s dedicated to Gary Poulter, who plays Wade and who died in 2013. David Gordon Green had discovered him living rough and cast him in the film but just months after filming ended, Poulter died back on the streets. He gives a gritty performance which, sadly, reeks of authenticity.
Joe is another in a long, and often distinguished, line of Deep South indie films, complete with their gloomy interiors and thunder storms. What singles this one out is that it shows what Nicolas Cage can do, given the opportunity. It’s helped with my allergy, but I fear I’m about to have a relapse.
Joe is released in key cities around the UK on Friday, 25 July.