I know that one of the most fun both cinephiles and non-cinephiles can have is to make fun of some of the performances turned in by Nicolas Cage, but every now and then a movie like Joe comes around and we’re treated to a fantastic performance by the actor. There’s no zaniness and no insanity to the job he does in this film. He is grounded and intense, reminding us as he works why he has an Oscar, and why filmmakers still pick him for these types of roles. A dedicated Nic Cage in a film like this one is a force to be reckoned with.
Joe is a film by David Gordon Green that feels like it takes place in the same universe as his last film, Prince Avalanche. Like Avalanche, the movie is steeped in atmosphere, set primarily in the backwoods of rural America — although admittedly this one has more scenes set in houses — and focusing on two primary characters, one older and one younger. The older man is Joe (Cage), the manager of a tree poisoning service. He is paid by logging companies to kill trees so they can be cut down and replaced with stronger trees. The legality of the process is relegated to an afterthought.
The second character is Gary (Tye Sheridan), who comes from a less-than-ideal home situation. His father (Gary Poulter, who died two months after filming) is an abusive drunk, and his sister and mother have become reclusive. It’s primarily on his shoulders to get money, and in doing so he finds Joe and inquires about a job. The two become fast friends. Joe functions like a real father for Gary.
Joe isn’t just about the relationship between these two individuals, though. Joe has his own secrets and his own problems, and the film explores all of those, too. He has a history of violence — he’s been to the jailhouse so often that he knows all of the police officers that work there — and he’s always one wrong look away from being set off. He’s generally a good man, but his past issues always seem to creep into his life. He is our protagonist, but Gary features quite prominently into the film’s proceedings.
This is an atmospheric and realistic movie. The setting brings with it its own sense of time and place. It has been filmed in a way that uses its location as well as possible. This is David Gordon Green at his best. His use of local actors and non-actors gives it that extra boost. These people know the area and know how people in the area act, and it allows them to give an additional bit of realism to the film. It’s always a risk to use actors nobody knows about — you don’t know what they’ll bring to the table — but it’s the mark of a good director when they consistently do great work, and that’s one of Green’s trademarks.
Take the late Gary Poulter, whose only other credit — according to the internet — was a cameo on the TV show Thirtysomething. He was a homeless alcoholic, and while he may have just been playing himself, the performance is incredibly strong. You would never know that he wasn’t really an actor. Without looking it up, I’d wager that most of Joe’s crew was made up of non-actors, too, but the only reason I guess that is because I know that this is something the director does.
Joe is violent. It’s not consistently violent, but the few brief points when violence becomes a central focus are brutal. They make an impact because of this. It isn’t excessive or prolonged, but the violence in Joe is certainly powerful. Most of the movie acts like this, actually. It builds up to its important scenes, and then they hit hard in a brief moment, before we go back to the build-up.
It’s slow-paced, I’ll admit, but that’s mirroring the lives of the people being shown. The film reminded me a lot of last year’s Mud, and not just because both films had Tye Sheridan in them. A potentially dangerous man becomes something of a mentor to a teenage boy whose own father is too busy/awful to do the job himself? All set in a realistic and slow-paced environment interspersed with short bursts of violence or emotionally resonating moments? If you liked Mud, you’re going to really like this one.
This isn’t a plot-driven film, and ultimately I’m unsure of whether it has much of a point. It brings with it complex characters, places them in a well-developed setting, and lets them go about their business. It’s a slow-moving character drama with moments of great violence. If it has a problem, it comes in the form of its subplots, which often feel underdeveloped. Tye Sheridan also shows regression from the form he showed in Mud. Call it inconsistency from a child actor. That’s okay.
Joe is a very impressive film — the type of project that both David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage should consistently produce. Its rural setting — wonderfully captured by its cinematographer — use of local or non-actors, and realistic portrayal of its characters gives it a powerful authenticity. Its characters are well-developed and performed well by the actors, and while it’s slow moving, it’s never dull. A couple of subplots are left slightly underdeveloped, but for the most part this is a great film that you should see.