Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Desperately looking for work, teenager Gary (Sheridan) manages to persuade a hardened local ex-con called Joe (Cage) to give him and his abusive alcoholic father Wade (Poulter) a job. However after Wade spends his first day constantly arguing with his co-workers, Joe tells them that he doesn’t want the two of them working for him anymore. Gary however remains perseverant and persuades Joe to carry on employing him without the knowledge of his father. However when Wade goes too far, Joe who has always exercised restraint to control the rage inside him, faces a choice that may lead to redemption or total ruin.
Oh, Nicholas Cage! The subject of much laughter and mockery by many amateur film critics like myself, and for some of the rubbish he has been that is more than deserved, but lest we forgot he is an Oscar winning actor and his performance here in Joe goes some way to reminding us that when he actually wants to be, he is a decent actor and screen presence.
When reviewing Joe many have made comparisons to Mud, not only in the similar tone and story (though Joe certainly features less sunshine) but it is another actor that is deservedly mocked for being in lazy roles in terrible films all of a sudden shocking of us by being in something that has substance and is actually good as well. All it takes is a quick look on imdb to see what Cage has in the pipeline to realise this is a bit of flash in the pan as far as him appearing in good films is concerned, but in this low budget gritty drama he near enough nails it.
Though I of course started my review talking about Cage, this film is not just about him, and I would argue that the fact it is Nic Cage sometimes detracts from the drama. Of course his casting makes perfect sense from the perspective of those in charge with marketing and accountancy of this film, but for the scenes involving the character of Joe that are supposed to be truly edgy and intense it just feel like Nic Cage going a bit mad again. When he starts shouting because a dog will not start barking at him memories of The Wicker Man do come back, that may be my fault, his fault or a bit of both, either way I would argue it does risk detracting from the grounded drama of Joe. His star power and perhaps the slightly clichéd concept of an aggressive and hardened bit of rough with a heart that becomes a role model for a younger character are the only criticisms I have of what is otherwise an extremely well made and truly gripping and engaging drama from start to finish.
From its brutal opening to its very appropriate and satisfying conclusions, David Gordon Green’s drama takes a very well trodden concept but yet manages to surprise. Though he may have directed the likes of Pineapple Express and Your Highness, what Gordon Green is best at is heartbreaking realism, and with its naturalistic dialogue and performances, Joe is a film rich in brooding and heartbreaking atmosphere.
The casting of Tye Sheridan will of course bring further comparisons to Mud, but he yet again proves an endearing screen presence, perfectly capturing the desperation and good intentions of his character. Whether he can translate this very promising start into being a great leading actor as an adult of course remains to be seen, but he has set the best possible foundations. The film may start off slowly, but it allows us to truly care about Joe and Gary and what happens to them, making the brutal developments on the film’s middle third even the more gut wrenching. Though the narrative arguably contains the occasional predictable element, on the whole Joe keeps us guessing and certainly is not afraid to shock us.
Gordon Green’s attempts to capture realism are perfectly depicted by the casting of Gary Poulter; a homeless man cast in his first film role that was often intoxicated during filming. The fact his character is actually who he is adds not only a sense of realism, but genuine tragedy (only enhanced by knowledge of the fact Poulter died not long after filming finished). Wade’s sudden mood swings, in that one minute he is having a laugh with Gary and then the next beating him up add even more edge and emotional involvement to the story.
The film is also wonderfully shot, with many long takes and widescreen shots capturing the emptiness of the life many of the characters lead, only enhanced by Tim Orr’s superbly gloomy cinematography that perfectly captures the fact the lives many of the characters lead are as empty as the sparse fields around them.
It is not all doom and gloom; life is a mixture of tragedy and comedy and some of the exchanges between Joe and Gary, in particular when searching for Joe’s dog are genuinely amusing. Though the film’s final third may be a little predictable, the superb character driven build up makes it feel both justified and satisfying.
Though a little contrived and clichéd in terms of story and characters, David Gordon Green’s eye for creating an atmosphere of brooding and harsh reality, and the superb performances make Joe a deeply engaging and emotionally satisfying drama from start to finish.