Enigma. A word made up mainly of letters that appear in the words ‘Nicolas Cage’. Coincidence? Yes, obviously it’s a coincidence.
Here, Cage plays the title character in David Gordon Green’s second film from his ‘Indie’ trilogy (with Prince Avalanche – read our review here – and the forthcoming Pacino-starring Manglehorn), after the director spent some time making stoner comedies with Joe‘s executive producer Danny McBride. It’s a return to critical acclaim for Cage, and a continuation of form for Green after Prince Avalanche.
Last time Cage hit his stride, it was in his legendarily fearless Vampire’s Kiss insanity mode for the Bad Lieutenant and Kick Ass one-two. Playing Joe requires Cage to dial his infamous unhinged style right back, and give an incredibly restrained performance with the occasional face-slapping flourish. Joe Ransom is an ex-con whose relationship with a hardworking boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), brings out his pent-up rage, after years spent trying to avoid trouble. The first half of the movie is setup, and is content to slow boil rather than flash fry, the occasional burst of violence bubbling up from time to time.
Sheridan (Mud, The Tree of Life) does well in arguably the trickier role. Gary is unable to escape from his abusive, alcoholic father, but is able to make a living working with Joe and his group of tree-fellers. He’s also capable of defending himself when threatened by a man with a grudge against Joe, but his father’s behaviour beats the family into submission, and the ties that bind them are too strong for Gary to leave. Sheridan communicates this plight well, a boy aged older than his years by his situation.
The most impressive performance, however, belongs to Gary Poulter as Wade, Gary’s Dad. Poulter had one previous acting credit prior to this film, and struggled with alcoholism himself. The fact that he was found dead after filming had wrapped lends an extra level of tragedy to the character. Put simply, he’s one of the most rivetingly horrific depictions of what alcohol can do to a person ever put on screen. There’s rage and selfishness, loneliness underscoring it all, and finally a sheer and overwhelming brutality when it comes to what he’ll do to get himself a drink.
After setting things up at a leisurely pace, we know what Joe does for a living (a legally dubious practice), that he has friends and lovers, that he’ll be good to you if he deems you worthy, but also that he has anger management problems. Dishing out moral judgement on dogs and strangers, he is unwilling or unable to live a normal life. He says more about his relationship with his girlfriend from his silence than his words, and his reasons for not contacting the emergency services (despite some fairly impressive injuries) become clear. We know that Wade is capable of subduing his family, and of the depths he’ll sink to, and that Gary is unable to escape him.
It becomes fairly clear how things are going to unfold once Joe’s rage starts boiling over. Possibly the pace doesn’t help here, giving the viewer plenty of time to establish how the story’s going to go. Despite this, it’s an effective and moving ending, largely due to the conviction of the performances and the score (by Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo). Green’s pacing may make the ending easy to guess, but it reaps dividends when it comes to raising tension. The slow burning dread of the inevitable is used twice to great effect.
For all that this makes Joe sound unrelentingly grim, it really isn’t. There’s a balance of humour and horror, especially with Wade and Joe, where their anti-social tendencies are exacerbated by taciturn wit, a humorous scene turning on its head very quickly. There are also some slower dynamics, bonding scenes where it feels like the cast have been let loose to improvise and sparks fly, but in the next scene we’re back to glowering in the half-light.
With a long build up that might deter some viewers, and a story that isn’t the most original, it’s hard to deny that Joe‘s peaks are immensely powerful, squirm inducing discomfort results from its sporadic flashes of violence, tragedy or comedy. It’s also well crafted, unflinching in its depiction of backwater America, with memorable performances and a rare deliberately subdued turn from Cage. These are enough to overcome Joe‘s limitations and lift the film to a higher level.
Joe is out on July 25 in the UK.
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