Nicolas Cage is often forgotten as being one of the great living actors of his, or any, generation that has been involved in filmmaking. It sounds hyperbolic to say, but consider his roster of credits, the wealth of talent he’s worked for, and his much-deserved Oscar. It’s easy to think of Nic Cage screaming about bees in his eyes, or going totally apeshit in some forgettable action flick he took for the money, but when something comes along like Joe, directed by David Gordon Green, it serves as a reminder why he continues to get the work that he does. When you see something like Joe, you remember how good he was in Adaptation., Leaving Las Vegas and Wild at Heart.
Tye Sheridan (who was also fantastic in the movie Mud), plays Gary, the teenaged son of a drifter and a homeless drunk, Wade (Gary Poulter). Gary, in need of work, approaches Joe (Nicolas Cage) and asks him flat out if he can work for him. Joe accepts, gives him a day’s wage, and immediately takes a liking to him. His father, not so much. The distrust and dislike is mutual and Wade feels a jealousy well up inside of him that is violent, petty and totally sadistic. By the end of the movie, you begin to wonder if he was ever human or if years of alcohol abuse turned him into the monster that he is.
David Gordon Green has done fantastic work outside of his milieu (Pineapple Express), but he’s at his best when it comes to the smalltown gothics that rely heavily on character interaction to propel the story forward. Sometimes, his films are in no hurry to get to the end, and that’s alright. Here, in Joe, there seems to be a bit too much story than is usual with his films, and an unexpected need to rush to the story’s conclusion, but nonetheless it remains well paced and a great showcase for talented cast.
True to his tradition of past casting, David Gordon Green filled many of the smaller parts with unknown, local actors. Joe’s crew–who specialize in poisoning trees to later be cut down for lumber–are comprised mainly of nonprofessionals, but their dialogue is naturalistic and fun to listen to. Some of the best parts of the film are when we get to hang out and listen to the crew of laborers shoot the shit about getting too drunk the night before.
In particular, Gary Poulter, who plays Wade the sadistic father, was a real-life homeless, alcoholic who had been cast. His casting reminds me of the motto of Vittorio De Sica, the Italian neorealist, in that there is one perfect role for everybody: Themselves. His performance is incredible to watch–he balances this perfect combination of venomous hatred and complete pitifulness. He’s too pathetic to hate, but too terrible a person to feel sorry for. Unfortunately, prior to the film being releases, Gary Poulter was found dead. It’s truly a gift to cinema that before his death he was able to put in one absolutely great performance. It really is.
Gary Poulter’s life itself is an interesting story that should be read, too.
The story that Joe has to tell isn’t an easy one. It’s about saving someone who needs the help, but emotional toll that having so much responsibility can do to someone’s soul. It’s about redemption, sure, but not in a typical way; it’s not about rebirth as a means of evolution, it’s about the agonizing pain that can be a necessity in escaping your own personal hell. And it’s actually about violence, not just a story than contains it as a plotting tool.
Both Nicolas Cage and David Gordon Green had been accused of floundering their careers with silly pieces of meaningless fluff but have, together, seemed to create a piece of work that is true to both of their strongest talents: Green’s love of Southern Dramaand Cage’s quiet, bubbling intensity that can explode at unexpected times. In one of the movie’s best moments, Joe finds himself in a situation where he fears losing his temper and he demands the bartender call the police before somewhere gets hurt. There’s a pain in his voice that sounds so real, like you can understand Joe’s own fear of what he’s capable of doing.
Joe is on Netflix Streaming and Amazon Prime. I recommend it strongly as one of the best movies to come out last year. If there’s a weak spot somewhere along the way, it’s that the last third of the movie feels a bit too rushed to come to a conclusion and have messy loose-ends tie themselves up. The real reason to see this movie is to see Nic Cage act the shit out of a great role and deliver some killer dialogue with a top-notch director.