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Might be Cage’s best performance in years.

David Gordon Green used to be kind of a singular filmmaker. He did movies like Snow Angels and Undertow, which is when I got into him, that share a certain rural Americana which blends the intrigue of the seemingly mundane with deeper themes and a penchant for coming of age stories. Later, he started branching into the high-concept and genre-blending comedies like Pineapple Express and Your Highness and is pretty fucking good at those too.

Joe feels like his earlier work and if you’re fan, that’s as good a reason as any to see it. On top of that, though, it features a series of truly impeccable performances and that classic mastery of the coming of age story which David Gordon Green is so good at. There’s also plenty of humor mixed into the menace, the tension, and the camaraderie at the heart of its story.

I’d like to pretend that people will notice Joe because hey it’s David Gordon Green doing what he does best, but more likely they’re going to go into it for Nicolas Cage who puts in one of his trademark out-of-nowhere-amazing performances (to be fair, this is getting a lot of attention among critics). Cage is a great, great actor and he pretty much always was. He’s just also a very eccentric, very risk-inclined one as well. Joe doesn’t feel like a gimmicky performance, as if the production is so boring that Cage has to invent insane character tics to stay interested. It feels like the confident, open work of a master. Which is what it is. As good as Gordon Green is with this kind of material, it’s Cage that claps you on the arm and grins a little through that beard and makes you feel welcome with Joe.

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The other half of what makes this movie work so fucking well.

Gary (Tye Sheridan) is a tough, responsible kid stuck with a pretty shitty lot in life. His family is a mess beyond what most regular people can really appreciate, having probably never met people like them. They’re drifters, moving in and out of the decaying wilderness of rural America in pursuit of temporary landfall where Wade (Gary Poulter), his n0-account father, can drink his fill for a while before pissing people off enough to drive them out to the road once again.

They meet Joe (Nicolas Cage) when they see how he hires day-laborers, all of whom are local black guys, to poison trees so that a logging company can come in and plant timber. Though it never dwells on the socioeconomic ramifications of something like that (spare mention is made of its legality), it helps form the backdrop of this world, where poverty is as real as those trees. Joe is a fair, generous man who we see is friends with his workers just as much as their boss. This is not an exploitative thing, but a way for Joe to give some men a livelihood and keep himself out of trouble besides. He’s the kind of guy that doesn’t buy a new truck just to do it, that is a friend to his community (as scummy as they may seem), but who also has demons in his past that crop up every now and then to make life difficult for him. He’s also the kind of guy who will let his dog kill another dog because that dog annoys him. Joe never flinches from its character study, good or bad.

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He went through a windshield and he doesn’t give a fuck.

Joe is very much about the intersection of those demons. As much as he wants to help Gary, and others, there are always people like Wade or Willy-Russel (Ronnie Gene Blevins, perfectly cast) to drag him down to their petty, banal brand of evil. As dangerous as Joe’s temper is, he’s not a stupid or predatory man. Unlike him, Wade is definitely predatory and as mean as they come. Poulter’s performance will remind people, I think, unsettlingly of times they’ve seen an uncle or a grandparent drunk and bitter and hateful. Likewise, Willy-Russel brings to mind every loudmouth, spiteful little coward that ever was or ever will be.

As Joe and Gary try, independently and together, to navigate these things, Joe’s grip on his temper and his vow of restraint, which he understands is the only thing that keeps him out of jail and not hurting people, they fester and boil until they can no longer be navigated. As bad as Wade and Willy-Russel are on their own, they’re way worse together and it’s in their scruffy and wicked congress that Joe finds a measure of redemption for all those times his anger and violence were misguided and did more harm than good. Joe allows its titular character to be heroic, and he’s exactly the kind of man who wrestles with himself without that adversity.

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Cage is downright scary at times, bringing to mind John Hawkes’ character in Winter’s Bone.

In some sense, Gary brings out a paternal nature in Joe which also helps him be a better person. Though we see how he can be a good guy, the best scenes are always where he and Gary hang out and work. The best of these sequences is when they do a booze-cruise search for Joe’s dog. This sequence is wonderful and recalls similarly playful bits from David Gordon Green’s other films (particularly the “playing in the woods” stuff from Pineapple Express). The way he does it makes you feel that way adults seldom get to feel, like a day can last forever.

And I mean, that’s a somewhat abstract way to describe how this movie makes you feel when it isn’t going grim. It feels like good company. Not everyone has the same background I do, and I suspect that there’s a little bit of bias in my view from having grown up around people and situations that are largely less dramatic versions of Joe. So bear that in mind as you watch, if you find this all less engaging than I do.

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This performance should have a trigger warning.

Joe is a quiet, subtle movie. But it’s also entertaining and engaging. People who watch it will be well satisfied by the story and the comeuppance received by various characters, as well as by the ultimate meaning of Gary and Joe’s friendship. It’s a good story well told, in other words.

It is very reminiscent of Mud and makes for a nice companion piece, not just because Tye Sheridan plays similar roles in both movies. Interestingly, Mud has a little more of the vaguely mythic sense that Undertow had and is a bit more surprising in terms of where its story ultimately goes. If you liked Mud, though, chances are you’ll enjoy its slightly meatier cousin.

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