Directed by David Gordon Green
Written by Gary Hawkins
David Gordon Green has definitely gone back to his indie and narrative driven roots with his two most recent films. Prince Avalanche was an interesting, if not over done buddy comedy, and Joe, which just had its American premiere at SXSW, is a dark, moody, character driven piece, but nothing that knocked me over. The film is depressing, intensely violent and depicts, as with many of Green's work, lower and working-class Southern individuals struggling to get by from a numerous amount of vices and addictions. Joe has some beautiful cinematography, but really moves at a snails pace. Similar to Jeff Nichols Mud, but it does not carry the moral structure and narrative strength that that film does. If the narrative is a little redundant and unfocused, the tone and acting, especially with a wonderful return to form from Nicolas Cage, keep Joe a somewhat decent film.
Joe, based on a novel from Larry Brown, is basically about brute masculinity, redemption and the struggles of poor financial family life, with a heavy dose of addiction and violence. Fighting dark urges and caving into addictions. Tye Sheridan plays Gary, a 15-year old, who desperately tries to find work so he can provide for his mother and sister. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a violent alcoholic, who is more worried about where he is going to get the next drink instead of keeping food on the table. Gary finds work with Joe (Nicolas Cage), who is a lumber foreman and an ex-convict. Gary is allowed to work for Joe and his all black crew, who keep young Gary in check. He is a hard worker and needs this job. No school or education. Poverty has riddled Gary's life and his family. His abusive, addict of a father is a despicable, disgraceful human being and has done little to nothing to support them. Wade is a terrible person and even worse father.
The film focuses more on mood and tone, then narrative clarity or structure. It is one of the major downfalls of this film, and one that I see throughout many of Green's work. I felt hatred for Wade and fear for Gary, but as a whole, the story just never jelled. Never came across with that narrative punch that it needed. I loved Undertow, and this film reminds of it, but just did not carry any impact at all. Another Southern based film about poor white trash and ex-cons trying to find redemption. Joe, who at first is reluctant to become involved with Gary's personal life, does once he realizes his father is a lowlife, piece of shit and beats him. Joe is fighting his own demons, whether it be alcohol or violence. Once Joe decides to intervene in Gary's life, he goes down a dark road that will hopefully cleanse him or at least lead him to some sort of personal redemption. Joe befriends Gary, but is more like the father Gary does not have. I mean, how much of a jerk do you have to be to hit your own son when he puts you in your drunken, idiotic place. The opening scene, where Wade beats Gary, sets the tone of depression, violence and unnecessary, but intense masculinity. This is an extremely dark film.
I felt the best thing Green did with Joe, besides getting some wonderful acting from his main star and the local talent from Austin, Texas where the majority of the shoot took place, was setting mood and tone. There is never a moment where you are not soaked into this dingy, uncomfortable world of booze-addled country folk and the lives of impoverished Southern people. A world seeped in sappy pine trees, empty liquor bottles, fighting dogs and agonizing emptiness. This is definitely a Southern gothic and Green sets the film beautifully with great work from cinematographer Tim Orr and a brooding score from David Wingo. It is just that screenplay that is a little too flat and lacking in structure. Sometimes I watch a Green film and feel I am watching multiple movies in one that do not always go, or blend, together. One talented director, but I have never really connected to his work like many others have.
The acting is fantastic though. Nicolas Cage is really special in Joe. A little portly and with tattoos, Cage gives Joe such depth and history. He feels like a man on the mends, but not fully succeeding in getting his life back on track. One that is fighting numerous personal issues, but still finding some joy out of life. Either with his respect for the crew he works with or the simple conversation with the gas station-grocery store owner, he is trying. Cage just delivers on all levels. I love seeing Cage act his ass off, and not overact or be flat-out silly. This is Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation territory here and I wish we got to see more of this from Cage.
The rest of the cast is great as well and I feel Tye Sheridan can play a poor Southern kid in his sleep. The role is similar to his role in Mud, but instead of trying to save a man, he is the one that needs to be saved. Sheridan is perfect, but I am ready to see him in something outside of a Southern accent and small-town dynamic. Green loves using local talent and dived into the Austin acting circles, and streets, for Joe. Gary Poulter, who was a homeless man in Austin when Green cast him as Wade, is phenomenal. An absolute bastard of a man. He played Wade with ruthless ignorance that fully worked. Sadly, Poulter passed away soon after filming was completed. Supporting turns from Adriene Mishler, who played Joe's sometime girlfriend Connie; Ronnie Gene Blevins, who plays a small time thug who has had a violent past with Joe, is great and really disgusting; Aj Wilson McPhaul playing Sheriff Earl, who tries to keep Joe from going back to jail and Johnny Mars plays a local cop who adds a little comedy to the film.
Joe is a good piece of mood cinema, but never really delivers throughout. The acting, with a great turn from Nicolas Cage, really carries the film along, but it just falls flat and is dull throughout the majority of the film. Cage is really wonderful here and shows that the talent is still there if given the right role. I did not completely dislike this film. Green has real talent as a director, but the film just needed a more polished, crisp screenplay. Cut the waste and get to the good stuff. It is a hard sit and is extremely violent. I am very mixed on Joe and probably would only watch it again to see the great work from Cage and the rest of the cast. It is quite good in that aspect.
Photo credit by IMDB.