April 12, 2014


Scanning the blurbs on a Critic Aggregate Site sees a lot of talk of David Gordon Green’s Joe being a “return to form” for its star Nicolas Cage, who has been much harried and parodied by the internet and by extension the broader cultural spectrum for some years now.  It’s not without merit, to be sure; his style is often over-the-top, and the often dire material he finds himself working with just to get a paycheck hasn’t invited him to “tone it down”, as it were.  The mistake is assuming that bad material is the same as bad acting, and Cage is not now nor has ever been a bad actor.  Different, to be sure, but “bad” denotes someone without gifts doing something they don’t understand.  I’ve never had that impression from Cage.  Joe is probably his best work when it comes to finding something deeper in the character, but then the material is suited for that.  It’s not a particularly successful film, but there’s a basis for the critical plaudits currently being laid upon it. 

A brief title card and we’re hit with a shot of the back of a boy’s head on the right of the frame, out of focus, as he lambasts his father, Wade (Gary Poulter), for being a useless drunk who has what’s coming to him.  Wade tires of his son, played by Tye Sheridan from Mud and The Tree of Life, and his impudence, and cold cocks him across the face before wandering up a hill where he’s met by two him who beat him mercilessly in the distance.  The honest intimacy in the run-down rural setting of a train track is nothing new for Green, and if he had held onto the brutal-but-expecting beating followed by the arms-length distance of the one that follows, the film might be a different beast.  Instead he switches up, following the material where it wants to go, and as such can’t quite stay above the hicksploitation the film, in essence, is.  Alongside Cage’s “return to form”, critics have also pointed to this being a similar venture for the director, who abandoned the poetic, Malick-aping snapshots of rural American angst of his early films for a financially successful (though uneven in quality) venture into Hollywood stoner comedies.  This would be a return to a style and area of interest if it hadn’t been for last year’s superior Paul Rudd/Emile Hirsch two-hander Prince Avalanche, which incorporated elements of that brand of comedy into a smart and (only seemingly) small portrait of two men at a crossroads.  The setting of broken down, poverty-stricken rural America might recall the rusted train tracks and abandoned mining depots of George Washington, but the ruthless and comically dark world is far removed from those early features.

Joe (Cage) is an ex-con who drinks and occasionally lets his violent side get the better of him, but who largely holds himself back to run a crew of workers who are poisoning trees so a developer can cut them down and replace them with the more useful Pine tree.  It’s a slightly labored metaphor, though its pay off is still somewhat effective.  The boy in the first scene, Gary, happens upon them in the woods and asks for work.  Joe sensing something in the kid gives him a chance, and he turns out to be a capable hard worker.  Gary lives with Wade, his barely existent mother, and a mute damaged sister whom, predictably, Gary feels it is his duty to protect.  Wade attempts to work but as a hoary old drunk and, quite frankly, a massive cliché of a redneck asshole, winds up just beating Gary for the money he earns to go out and drink.  Joe is also at odds with an angry local yokel with the suitable double-barreled name of Willie-Russell.  Recently Joe had humiliated him in a bar fight in front of friends, and Willie-Russell follows Joe to a friend’s house and shoots him in the shoulder when he comes out.  It’s a shocking and slightly absurd bit of violence that ends with Willie tossing the gun over a bridge before getting into an altercation, by chance, with Gary, who beats him up.  Willie is plot device and never tries to be anything more, despite an amusing tick that sees him proving his manhood by repeating how he “went through a windshield at 4am and doesn’t give a fuck!”  As Joe attempts to maintain some stability in his life whilst also fighting the good nature in him that makes him want to help Gary, full well knowing that road leads to the kind of violence that will get him into a worse situation than he is, Willie exists to ensure that this will never be the case.  The decks are stacked against Joe, in the end, and though the performance and the character do an awfully good job of communicating the regret of a life ruined by bad decisions from a long time ago, the plot machinations to get this final reckoning are too creaky and obvious to ignore.

That push/pull between somber, contemplative character piece and absurd redneck noir is complicated by Green’s penchant for the surreal, including a few sequences where the wiry, grey-haired Wade break dances and pop-and-locks, or a (genuinely very good) scene that sees Gary and Joe drunkenly searching for the latter’s runaway dog.  If it’s obvious the script wanted to have a scene just shy of a montage to show the bond between Gary and Joe, this is at least a pretty inspired way to do it.  Overall the register of the film is too far one way to let the other settle in.  There’s a brutal scene where Wade has an ugly confrontation with a homeless man by a river, which is so severe and pointless in its brutality (and its character development) that the true exploitation nature of the script becomes impossible to deny, but then it leads to a grotesquely nice moment where Wade lays his hands upon his victim, as though asking for forgiveness for being someone he knows he can’t change.

Cage is well suited to the material, and while many “return to forms” see actors underplaying their usual types which critics automatically read as “deep and honest”, Cage modulates his normal register to work with the material.  He’s not underplaying, he’s just waiting for the right moments to unleash his particularly aggressive brand of acting.  There’s an extended sequence where an altercation in a bar with Willie-Russell sees a moment of violence followed by a screeching drive to a whorehouse, a problem with a dog, a retrieval of Joe’s own dog, a screeching drive back to the whorehouse, then a dogfight and a blowjob before a highway chase with cops.  It’s utterly insane, really, and it’s the moment where Green’s recent venture into a more kinetic Hollywood comedy style comes through.  Cage is genuinely great here, even if nothing else about it can handle its darkly comic milieu.

I suppose this can all be read as my desire to see a return to the early days of David Gordon Green, but I don’t think that’s quite the case.  This is a different movie from those works, and it’s why I balk at the notion that this could ever be considered some sort of “return” other than the setting, which itself isn’t quite the same (the inestimable talents of Tim Orr are deployed less for the beautiful, open-air vistas littered with rust and more for a ramshackle claustrophobia the script needs).  This is a fine character piece, even if the only truly interesting one is Joe himself, but he’s surrounded by hicksploitation clichés that prevent the film from truly breaking out into something special.  Joe’s decisions make sense and reveal the depth of a life wasted, but it’s why he has to make those decisions where the film can’t transcend its story.  Green’s early work involved a fair number of poverty-stricken rural “salt-of-the-earth” types, but he rarely (if ever) exploited them for something so cheap.


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