Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Gary Poulter and Ronnie Gene Blevins
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: July 25th
David Gorgon Green has had a strange career. Emerging as a sort of spiritual heir to Terrence Malick with films like George Washington and All the Real Girls he suddenly made the move into stoner comedies such as Pineapple Express and Your Highness. However if last years Prince Avalanche signalled a return to his indie roots, his new film Joe cements this new turn in the director’s career.
Nicolas Cage plays the titular character, an ex-con who works for a lumber company, hiring local workers to poison trees in order for them to be torn down for new stronger trees. Into Joes life comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15 year old from a drifter family whose abusive, alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter) destroys any chance of employment everywhere they go. Joe develops a relationship with Gary taking on the role of father figure to the lost kid, but he soon finds himself struggling to suppress the rage in himself that threatens to destroy his life.
For most of its running time, Joe tends to avoid narrative; instead it uses its characters to look at the theme of masculinity in an isolated place where violence is often the main form of expression. The rural Texan setting is, with great work by Green’s regular cinematographer Tim Orr, is bleak and oppressive reflecting the characters states of mind.
It is the central performances that really make a lasting impression. After working in, what feels to be an eternity, mindless action dross such as Next or two – TWO! – Ghost Rider films, Cage delivers one of his best performances in years as the conflicted, flawed but ultimately decent Joe. Largely restrained, with only one scene where he succumbs to the excesses that defies a lot of his roles where after being confronted with a snarling dog he yells, “I love dogs. Just not that dog, that dog is an asshole!” Cage is excellent in his portrayal of a man who is desperately trying to suppress his rage in a world that doesn’t give him a chance.
Cage is well supported by Sheridan and Poulter. Sheridan, continuing the promise he has shown in Tree of Life and Mud, impresses in the most difficult role of the film as the young boy who is starting to become trapped in this circle of macho violence but is hopeful for a way out. Poulter, who in real life was a homeless alcoholic and died shortly after the film was completed, is terrifying as the psychopathic Wade, who will stop at nothing to fulfil his own selfish desires.
What makes these characters work though is Green and screenwriter Gary Hawkins reluctance to paint them as one-dimensional. While Joe wants to be a good man, and wants to set an example to Gary, he is also a dangerous man prone to destructive violence. At the same time Wade is afforded one scene where he goofs around with his son, drunkenly showing off his b-box moves, a small tender moment for a character who has otherwise removed any trace of his decency.
Despite its grimness and a last act that relies too heavily on melodrama in order to resolve the fate of the characters, Joe is worth seeing for the strength of its performances and its reluctance to rely on simplistic characterisation. It also serves as a reminder of how powerful an actor Nicolas Cage can be when given the right material. We just have to remember that when films like Rage come out.