The career of David Gordon Green is an interesting one. His early career consisted of more dramatic indie films, while recent years have seen him involved with some unusual choices (Pinapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter). He returned to his roots with last year’s somewhat underappreciated Prince Avalanche, and has furthered that return this year with Joe.
Green produced and directed Joe. Based on Larry Brown’s novel of his 1991 novel of the same name, the tale was adapted to the screen by Gary Hawkins. Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a man with a troubled past. He keeps his head low, working hard while leading an illegal off-the-books crew of men who poison the old trees so that the land-owners can plant the bigger trees that they want there. This is where Joe meets a teenage boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan). Driven by a strong work ethic, Gary needs a job. He can’t rely on his drunk and abusive father Wade (Gary Poulter) to support him or his family. Joe steps in as a father figure to Gary, although that’s not to say that he’s exactly the man for the job either.
Joe is haunted by his past. He has a bad temper, prone to violence, drinks too much, and involves himself with one too many prostitues. Even so, his heart is in the right place, and it’s a tale of redemption for him. He sees that young Gary is in need of a good role model, and doesn’t like how Wade is abusive to Gary and steals the earnings that Gary makes from working for Joe.
Although he’s trying to settle down and stay out of trouble, Joe has a violent encounter with Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a man who Joe has a troubled history. Between Wade and Willie it’s hard for Joe to stay out of trouble. He tries his best not to let the animal inside him out of its cage. The beastly dog that he has chained to his front yard is more than a metaphor for the animal that lies within Joe. Soon enough, Joe is pushed to hit limit, but with Gary under his wing, Joe is stuck at ends of what to do.
Nicolas Cage is all business as Joe. It’s easily his best role is many years (since Lord Of War, although he was solid in Kick-Ass). Cage is fully engulfed into the role of Joe, portraying the pain of the character in gripping fashion. The dramatic nuances are there, but Cage also finds the room to offer plenty of hilarious moments, including one memorable scene in a car referencing strippers. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.
In only his 3rd film appearance (Tree Of Life & Mud being his first two), Tye Sheridan proves that he is a real force to be reckoned with. He’s the real deal. He not only holds his own against the veteran presence of Cage, but blends in effortlessly alongside him. He’s almost like a young River Phoenix. I have no doubts that Sheridan is one of the best young actors working today. There’s also a strong performance from Gary Poulter, a homeless man who Green found off the streets of Austin. He’s so good that you’ll never even guess that this was a man who never acted before. I’m sad to report that Poulter has passed away.
Joe is a bit of a slow burn, but comes at you in short (often violent) bursts that will serve as a worthy release for sure. Green shows his directorial chops here again, using natural visuals to his advantage, with great use of music alongside the scenes. Many of the actors in the film are just regular people that he put into the film, but you’d never have a clue. He makes it all seem so effortless, that you are just along for the ride, completely absorbed.