It’s rare that the careers of a director and actor come together like those of David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage have in 2014. Cage, perhaps with the exception of one of the greatest comedies of the last 25 years The Wicker Man, has hit a bit of a rough patch over the last decade or so, both personally and professionally. Gordon Green has experienced some ups and downs recently as well. After an unimpeachable run to begin his directorial career, he is now on the rebound as well after a string of mediocre comedies that could not have been more of a left turn from his George Washington/Snow Angels days. 2013’s Prince Avalanche was a return to meditative, naturalistic form for the filmmaker and now, with Nicholas Cage in tow, Gordon Green has hit a satisfying sweet spot with Joe.
Cage is Joe Ransom, a hardscrabble ex-con with a violent past attempting to stay on the straight and narrow by supervising a group of day laborers commissioned by a local lumber company to poison useless trees. Late one Friday, Gary (the excellent Tye Sheridan of 2013’s Mud), makes his way onto the work site and finagles a job offer from Joe. The following week, Gary’s abusive and alcoholic father Wade tags along to try his hand at the job, a venture that ends well for no one involved.
Ultimately, the whos and whats of the narrative are fairly inconsequential. Like any number of genre films before it, Joe finds its protagonist at conflict with demons from both his past and present, not the least of which is his own battle with the bottle. The true struggle here, however, is Joe’s fight to become the positive male influence that Gary needs. It’s here that the considerable talents of Cage and Sheridan are on full display. It is after that first day of working with both Wade and Gary that Joe realizes just how badly the kid needs him. Upon being dropped off at the condemned house he shares with Gary’s mother and mute sister, Wade grows agitated after being stiffed out of a paycheck that due to his drunken outbursts and poor work habits Joe deems he doesn’t deserve. Wade proceeds to beat Gary to the ground and take his hard earned cash for himself. This is a key scene for two reasons: first, it gives the viewers their first concrete evidence of the hardship that Gary endures on a day to day basis. Second, it acts as a turning point for Joe. As he watches Wade physically and verbally assault Gary, Joe, with a pained look on his face, nearly steps in. From that point forward he makes it a point to shield young Gary from whatever brutality he can.
While his upbringing is harsh, Gary never once plays the victim (he repeatedly stands up to his father and other unsavory characters that give him a hard time). Even if he did, Joe wouldn’t allow it. Both Cage and Sheridan’s portrayals of the two leads are simultaneously world-weary and hopeful. Although he knows all too well the pain that goes along with the life of a drifter, there is a light in Gary’s eyes that lets us know that he believes he has a lot to live for. Joe senses this, too. Through the constant allusions to his troubled life (If there is a knock to be made on this film it is this. Gordon Green feels the need to continuously throw obstacles in Joe’s path that neither serve the narrative nor give us any real insight into his background. We already know that Joe has seen and done it all; Cage carries that jadedness in his performance every step of the way.) we know that he’s just about at the end of his rope so perhaps securing a solid future for the boy is a last ditch effort to create a positive legacy in the midst of crime-filled life lived. Joe has been hailed as a possible comeback-starter for Cage, and that certainly may turn out to be true. He plays Joe with a brooding sensitivity not unlike Matthew McConaughey’s title character in Mud.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Gary Poulter’s portrayal of Wade. Poulter had been homeless when David Gordon Green cast him in the film and the pain of an undoubtedly difficult life is written all over the performance; a performance that is perhaps the best I’ve come across from an amateur. His interactions with Gary and Joe are a sight to behold, matching them at every turn. Unfortunately, Poulter passed away soon after shooting wrapped but his chilling portrayal of a broken man will live on.
That is what is at the heart of Joe: the staggering performances. Sure, the story is more than interesting enough to keep the viewer locked in from beginning to end, but the real fun here is watching Gordon Green, like he did with George Washington and Prince Avalanche, create a unique yet vaguely familiar world and let his talented actors go to work.
Dustin is currently studying journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He loves movies, music, basketball, and beer. Follow him on Twitter @Dustin_W317.