In recent years it has seemed as though one would have to wade through five bad Nicolas Cage movies to get to a good one. Joe is most definitely one of the good ones, and good enough to make the wading worthwhile.
It might be a little unfair to describe the film in those terms, however. Not least because the rest of the cast shine just as brightly as Cage, particularly Tree of Life‘s Tye Sheridan as 15-year-old Gary, and the real-life vagrant Gary Poulter as his abusive father.
Cage is playing the titular Joe, a gruffly compassionate man who lives on the outskirts of society. His is the strata of small-town community made up of drifters, day labourers and criminals.
When Gary and his family move into a condemned house nearby, Joe allows Gary to work with his crew on a mission to poison trees and provide the landowner with a legal reason to clear the forest. This scheme sets the tone for the rest of the film, where poverty makes casual lawbreaking an inevitable part of the characters’ lives.
Director David Gordon Green had intended to provide a sense of authenticity by casting several non-professional actors in background roles, but Poulter impressed him so much during auditions that he was hired to play one of the central characters. It’s sad to note that this was not only is Gary Poulter’s first acting role, it was sadly his last. Poulter died just two months after filming was completed.
As the unpredictable, perpetually drunk Wade, Poulter gives a realistic and disturbing performance that most likely would not have been created by a Hollywood actor. Himself a homeless alcoholic for many years, Poulter’s own experiences as a homeless alcoholic, not to mention his physical appearance, have left an indelible mark on the role.
This issue of “real”-looking actors is one of the few potential problems with Joe. Tye Sheridan’s fresh-faced gawkiness works for his character, who seems comparatively innocent against the cast of cynics and abusers. But with so many of the supporting roles taken up by people who look convincingly grizzled and hollow-eyed, Cage may actually look too good.
While his performance is one of the best of his career, it’s difficult not to compare Cage’s surprisingly youthful skin and white teeth to that of his more scarred and wrinkled counterparts. The worst is the almost comedic ugliness of Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local man with whom Joe shares a violent and pointless feud. Since the rest of the film feels so authentic, it’s odd to see an almost pantomime-like contrast between the heroic Cage, and a scarred, toothless pervert as the villain. Still, this is a minor quibble offset by the uniformly excellent performances of the cast.
Director David Gordon Green evidently knows how to use Cage’s infamous frenetic energy just when needed, and how to tamp it down the rest of the time. Joe has an undercurrent of rage boiling beneath his surface at all times, but unlike Gary’s father, Joe always attempts to rein in his own violence and anger. So we get the best of both worlds: a subtle, emotionally complex performance, along with the occasional explosions of weird aggression for which Nic Cage is so beloved.
Joe brings to mind Beasts of the Southern Wild, another film where childhood and optimism clash with extreme poverty in contemporary America, and where a close-knit rural community is shown living in a way that is rarely seen on film. However, Joe has none of the magic realism of Beasts, instead aiming for a pragmatic depiction of a lifestyle where poverty and violence are well-nigh unavoidable.
Although Joe is often bleak, it’s not without moments of humor, particularly between Gary and Joe. The slow build of their relationship is as moving and three-dimensional as you could hope for, and almost feels like a product of another time. Social services never seem to be an option for Gary or his sister, Gary’s family are so poor they cannot even afford a clock, and the setting often feels like something out of a Western: forests, dirt, family feuds, friendly neighbourhood prostitutes, and gallons of cheap whisky. And like a Western, some kind of showdown is inevitable. Black clouds hover overhead even when anything seems to be go well for the film’s long-suffering protagonists.
Joe is in UK cinemas now and also available via VOD.