Watching a Nicolas Cage movie is like pulling from a bag of candy sold en masse at a local five-and-dime. You’re not sure what flavor to expect, but chances are that it’s going to be sickening if you consume too much of it—and sometimes that’s a good thing. Yet, ever so rarely (and rarer still in the last decade), you discover something resembling a knock-out performance. David Gordon Green’s Joe is exactly that unusual jollity, bringing as much mirth to the viewer as it does a visibly animated Nicolas Cage. And for the first time in a long while that cartoonish simile is a compliment.
In retrospect, Cage and Green should have collaborated years ago. Both have made eclectic choices throughout their careers to be sure. Be it intensely tragic dramas like All the Real Girls (2003) and Snow Angels (2007), or intensely bizarre herbal medicated comedies like Pineapple Express (2008) and The Sitter (2011), the only constant in Green’s near Cage-ian like eccentric genre swinging has been that he gets the very best from his performers. Indeed, after several commercial comedies of varying quality, Green returned to independent cinema with last year’s highly underrated Prince Avalanche, which amounted to little more than Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch shouting at each other on an endless strip of national park highway for a few hours. An Arkansas native who went to school in North Carolina, Green has a knack for finding the simple pleasures in a rustic America that is often overlooked by audiences and filmmakers alike. Joe is no exception.
Based on Larry Brown’s novel of the same name, Joe (which is now available on VOD and iTunes) is about an ex-con with so much pent up rage that he could be mistaken for peaceful by the unassuming. That is exactly what happens when a 15-year-old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes to idolize Joe as the toughest, coolest backwoods boss he’s ever had. This surprise connection is more than obviously due to Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter). A mean drunk when sober, Wade is more anchor than father to his children. Wade initially gets his son fired from Joe’s ridiculously fair business practices of tree-clearing due to Wade’s own total laziness, and he then later steals from Gary’s wages when his son returns to Joe’s good graces. But that is just the first sip of the whiskey bottle for an old-timer who for a few drinks would literally sell his mute daughter’s body to the night, not to mention the remnants of his soul.
Joe is a quixotic tale about the title character making for the most unlikely of father figures, taking Gary under his wing, and ironically releasing that long buried anger. Indeed, the movie’s real bite comes in the second half of its brisk running time when that paternity leads to Joe finally giving into his most violent impulses when faced with the credulity of Wade. Whoever said parenthood mellows a man out has clearly not met Cage’s character.
Obviously meant to be a star vehicle for Cage, the actor devours every ounce of depth to flesh out his tortured Southern gothic hero. Joe is a guy who will show the kindest grace to men he deems worthy (nominally those who work hard with what they are given) and is a fellow who will provide ex-cons and dirt poor kids living in condemned homes a day’s pay for a day’s work: they poison trees so corporations can come in and clear them out for development. Yet, Joe is something of an enigma when he can just as easily lose his cool at loud-mouthed dogs. Not that he hates animals, it’s simply that dog is an asshole, and is in need of a good beating. While PETA may be less than enamored with this character, Joe Ransom sits comfortably beside Cage’s other best performances from the last 10 years, including Bad lieutenant and Kick-Ass.
Still, he is not the one who walks away with the movie. The picture ultimately belongs to the harrowing relationship depicted by Sheridan and Poulter with the true touch of doom that floats between the barren trees of nearly all of Green’s Southern dramas. Sheridan, who is something of a star on the indie circuit now after his breakthrough in Mud, creates an even more tortured kid who is fiercely proud of his impoverished family but knows, deep down, that his father is a complete waste of space. At first, he tries to run from the problem by latching onto Joe as his savoir, but for all of Joe’s good intentions, Gary still comes home to Wade, whose biological seniority allows him to hold dominion over his frightened and brow-beaten family. Apparently Poulter was homeless and living on the streets of Austin when Joe’s casting director discovered him, and his face announces every inch of that wear and tear. Always looking to cast non-actors to fill in the margins of his independent movies, Green hit the jackpot with Poulter who makes for the meanest sonofabitch alcoholic since possibly Cage himself in Leaving Las Vegas.
All of these slow boiling, down-South downers Green makes when he steps away from the studio system have a certain lethargic rhythm to them. Even his best comedies, such as the HBO series Eastbound & Down—whose co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride served as executive producers on Joe—wallow in the depths of monotonous despair. And yet, the best of them also reflect back a sense of hope, or at least humor, about their long-suffering protagonists, creating a visual poetry that is often informed by the well-populated supporting casts of non-actors. Joe is probably not quite as moving as Green’s best smiling Appalachian nightmares, a niche that he carved out for himself ever since 2000’s George Washington. However, it still showcases a group of performances that are uniformly excellent, including from a deceivingly sedated Cage, who is rarely this alive. That alone makes this broken home drama one worth investing in.