Dark and uncompromisingly grim, David Gordon Green’s Joe is a wicked Southern Gothic tale of violence and vice in the heart of the Deep South.
Cage Fighter by Dave O’Flanagan
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
There’s an undeniable irony in the fact that the titular character of David Gordon Green’s latest film is responsible for poison and destruction. This irony is rooted in the fact that the character is played by Nicolas Cage, who himself has inadvertently spent the best part of the last decade poisoning and destroying his once illustrious career. Despite his penchant for questionable role choices, Cage has rambled onto a winner in Joe – it’s a return to form of sorts for the Master of Internet Memes. Underneath its sweaty, grubby and unsavoury exterior, Joe is a touching story about a man with nothing to lose saving a boy with everything to lose.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is an ex-con who lives a simple life in Southern Texas operating a tree-poisoning business. Living alone with his dog, Joe does his utmost to avoid situations that will land him back in the crosshairs of the law. When Joe employs drunken drifter Wade (Gary Poulter) and his son Gary (Tye Sheridan), he suddenly finds his relatively straightforward existence in jeopardy. Assuming the position of surrogate father to the good-natured Gary, Joe becomes hopelessly intertwined in the downward spiral that Gary’s father has set in motion.
In a 2013 interview with The Guardian, Nicolas Cage was asked what bothered him most – he responded that it was his craft. He said that he was at a point in his career where he didn’t want to act, he wanted to be “as naked as I can be as a film presence”. Now, one year later, UK audiences will finally witness this new, more ‘naked’ Nicolas Cage. As disturbing as such an image is in reality, this figurative stripping down of Cage as a performer is a welcome departure from the likes of the truly awful Drive Angry, Season of the Witch and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. At the center of Joe is a lonely man, whittled down by experience, his face a permanent record of a volatile existence. Cage is perfectly cast in the role and imbues the character with raw physicality and pathos, shirking the more recognisable crazy Cageisms that we’ve all come to recognise.
Joe’s lonely existence is magnified by the prevailing sense of claustrophobia in his surroundings. Gordon Green does a fantastic job of making small-town Texas feel even smaller. From the dimly lit interiors of Joe’s house to the neon splattered rooms of a local brothel to the gloom of the forests that are to become graveyards – everything is dark and close and suffocating. In addition to this, the unsavoury and threatening characters that inhabit the town create an unsettling sense of foreboding. This ominous and wicked atmosphere is incredibly effective in putting the audience on the edge of their seats – even more so when Joe’s young friend Gary is involved. Following a star-making turn in 2012’s Mud, Tye Sheridan is impressive as the young man responsible for an alcoholic father, mentally infirm mother and psychologically scarred sister. It’s a complex character for the young actor to bring to life, and Sheridan is convincing as the equal measures brooding and exuberant Gary.
A native of Arkansas, Gordon Green has an innate familiarity with the landscape described in Larry Brown’s novel on which the film is based. Coupled with David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain’s wonderfully atmospheric score, the Southern Texas landscape is adequately oppressive and suffocating. The director’s familiarity can sometimes work against the film however – his patience in letting several scenes ‘breath’ result in them lingering on long after the viewers attention has waned. In the opening third of the film in particular, this leads to the film feeling disjointed and languid. The protracted pacing of several early scenes feels like a missed opportunity when you feel like you could have spent more time with Gary, Joe and other characters. Between Gary’s snarling, drunk and abusive father (played convincingly by Gary Poulter) and Joe’s fiendishly antagonistic enemy Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), you feel like the running time has been squandered by poor pacing.
All in all, assured performances from Sheridan and Cage are more than enough to make Joe worthy of your time. The overwhelming sense of malaise from the claustrophobic environments and intimidating characters guarantee that this is never an easy watch. The violence and evil at every turn is uncomfortable and sometimes too much to remain engaging, but the central relationship between Joe and Gary serves as a light in the deep dark. It’s refreshing to see Cage take the reigns of such a complicated character, to deliver a stripped down, naturalistic performance with an ease that recalls his Oscar-winning turn as Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas. Somewhat similar to Joe’s sense of duty – figuratively stepping in front of a force destined to obliterate Gary’s young life – Cage may just have done something similar for his own career.
Joe is released on 25th July 2014 in the UK