Joe has been widely touted as a return to form for two of the creatives involved in its production. Nicolas Cage has largely languished in poorly written, poorly made, and poorly acted action movies for the last ten years; his role as the titular character in Joe is purported to be his first real performance in years. Similarly, director David Gordon Green spent several years stranded in middling comedy purgatory after directing Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. Last year’s Prince Avalanche was much more in line with the earlier films in Green’s oeuvre, and with the release of Joe, Green seems to be trying to learn from the mistakes of his more mainstream follies. Both Cage and Green hope to find salvage among the wrecks their careers have wrought, and perhaps Joe will be just the remedy they need.
Cage’s Joe is an ex-con attempting to make an honest living while suppressing the immense darkness that lives inside him. When a family of drifters arrives in town, Joe takes the young son, Gary (Tye Sheridan), under his employ, becoming a surprisingly effective mentor to the boy. This does not sit well with Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter), who possesses a darkness rivaling Joe’s. What ensues is a tug of war for Gary’s soul, one in which neither party is entirely good or bad.
Let’s address Cage first. The performances throughout the movie are almost unanimously honest and real, owing much to Green’s tendency to cast non-actors in his movies. Unfortunately this causes Cage to stick out like a sore thumb from the beginning of the movie. Despite delivering one of his more restrained performances (an interesting parallel with his character, who must also constantly restrain himself), it is quite clear that Cage is “acting” (cue Jon Lovitz clip). This becomes less jarring as the movie proceeds, but Joe never really fits in with the rest of the characters. Viewed separately from those around him, Cage’s performance is quite good, and perhaps his isolation from the rest of the people in the cast is reflective of Joe’s isolation from those around him, but this idea never quite clicks if it is in fact Green’s intention.
Sheridan, on the other hand, is perfectly natural in his role. The young man is three-for-three in terms of artistic output; he has done nothing but impress in The Tree of Life, Mud, and now Joe. Sheridan displays a little more maturity here, evoking some of the same darkness that permeates Joe and Wade. I look forward to seeing where Sheridan’s career goes from here, though he is dangerously close to being type-cast; it would be nice to see just how much range he has.
But he fits in fine with the rest of the cast in Joe. Poulter – who passed away shortly after production – is particularly strong, as is Brian Mays as Junior, one of Joe’s employees. Green has a knack for getting effective work out of inexperienced performers, and a good deal of the film’s atmosphere is established in the quiet moments between non-descript “real” people peppered throughout the picture.
In this way, Joe is more reminiscent of Green’s earlier films, like George Washington, than his stoner comedies. The majority of the movie is concerned with establishing the tone of the characters and the setting, rather than forwarding a plot. Green colors inside these vague lines by alternating semi-abstractly between comedic moments (such as an excellent montage depicting Joe and Gary’s exploits halfway through the film) and intensely dramatic ones.
Because of this, when the movie takes a decidedly plot-driven turn in the last 10-15 minutes, it does not feel true to what has come before. The story wraps up in a way that the films penned by Green himself do not, leading one to assume Gary Hawkins’s script (based on the novel by Larry Brown) is to blame.
Perhaps Green is still a little gun-shy from his director-for-hire days – not fully comfortable taking control of someone else’s script. This is pure speculation, however. Luckily there is plenty to like about Joe, and even though neither Cage nor Green come out of the project smelling like a rose, it is certainly a work they can both be proud of.