A film review by Craig J. Koban May 29, 2014

RANK: #14

JOE jjjj

2014, R, 117 mins.


Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom  /  Tye Sheridan as Gary  /  Gary Poulter as Wade  /  Ronnie Gene Blevins as Willie

Directed by David Gordon Green  /  Written by Gary Hawkins

I don’t think that there is a more schizophrenic actor working today than Nicolas Cage.  

For every one of his past superlative performance successes (LEAVING LAS VEGAS, MATCHSTICK MEN, ADAPTATION) there’s been many noteworthy stinkers (BANGKOK DANGEROUS, THE WICKER MAN, TRESPASS, SEASON OF THE WITCH).  Sadly, we have been witness to more egregiously awful Nicolas Cage films/performances as of late than good, but along comes a JOE, a somber, deeply unsettling, meditative, harshly violent, and richly atmospheric Southern Gothic drama that reminds us of the type of powerful talent Cage is when compelled to be.  In actuality, Cage’s masterfully underplayed and nuanced turn here could not be anymore different than his recent string of embarrassing turns in front of the camera; JOE is a triumph and proud return to form for the Oscar winning actor. 

It’s also a stunningly realized return to form for director David Gordon Green, who seems to have partaken in many an odd career detour (much like Cage himself) as of late.  After making a proverbial splash in fantastic indie fare like GEORGE WASHINGTON, ALL THE REAL GIRLS, and UNDERTOW, he astounded his fanbase by then making the decidedly more mainstream Hollywood stoner comedy PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (a rock solid action comedy, to be sure), but then followed that up with easily forgettable films like the chronically misguided fantasy comedy YOUR HIGHNESS and the nearly unwatchable Jonah Hill vehicle THE SITTER.  Thankfully, Green returns to his esoteric roots in JOE in the manner in which he creates a sense of stark immediacy and texture with his rural settings while, at the same time, diving headfirst into the unique headspaces of his blue collar characters that gives this film such a stark sense of verisimilitude.  Very few films from 2014 have felt as lived-in and authentic as what’s on display in JOE. 

Cage is Joe Ransom, a man that, based on appearance and mannerisms alone, seems to have a dark and seedy past.  This man is bad news: he’s a chronic drinker, notorious gambler, loose with many a woman, and seems to harbor an unending feud with a local hothead (Ronnie Gene Blevins) that appears like it can boil over into heated violence at any moment.  Even though Joe is by no means a perfect man, he does manage to overcome his nagging character faults and personal woes by being, for the most part, a fair and honorable people person that treats those that he employs with loyal fairness.  His runs a group of ragtag laborers that are hired by local lumber companies to poison trees (a profession that, frankly, I had no idea even existed).  Joe's workers like him and he appreciates them in kind, which makes his occupational existence fairly grounded and lacking in tension. 



Any semblance of normalcy for Joe is thrown a curveball by the appearance of a new kid in town named Gary (Tye Sheridan, the wonderfully natural young actor from THE TREE OF LIFE and MUD) that seems to express a keen interest in joining Joe’s crew.  Although initially reluctant with taking on a new crewmember that’s so young, Joe develops a fondness for Gary’s wherewithal and strong work ethic and hires him.  Gary’s life, though, seems almost more pathetically cruel and sad than Joe’s.  He lives in an abandoned and dilapidated house with his mother, sister, and father, Wade (Gary Poulter), the latter that just may be the most toxically dislikeable and unsavory alcoholic character ever to appear in a movie.  Wade’s daily life operates on three tangents: (1) Savagely beating his son whenever he feels compelled to, (2) parading around town inebriated at every waking moment, and (3) taking Gary’s work earnings and blowing it on booze.  The more Joe bares witness to Gary’s emotional and physical suffering the less willing he is to ignore it and do nothing about it.  Faced with mounting moral pressure, Joe decides to intervene, even if it means more unwanted upheaval in his already tumultuous life. 

With the bravura work of cinematographer Tim Orr (who has shot all of Green’s last films), JOE takes on a rough, rugged, and bleak portrait of its characters that are on the lower end of the socio-economic wavelength.  This, combined with sound location shooting that brings such a sense unruly immediacy to the proceedings, allows for Green’s film breathe with so much intimacy.  Moe importantly, Green places viewers squarely in the mindsets of his deeply flawed and bewildered characters and always manages to make us feel the overwhelming pressures and sense of daily unease that these people are burdened with.  I love how Green never places judgment on his personas: he’s a confident and trustworthy enough of a filmmaker to believe in his audiences to make up their own minds about the worth and creed of people like Joe and the code of honor they try to adhere to everyday while battling hardships few of us will ever understand.  Joe is a man prone to animalistic violence, for certain, but he’s still a principled man that wants to right wrongs where he sees them, which makes him such a richly fascinating character study. 

Thankfully, Green’s modulated shooting style allows for the performances to shine through and rule the day.  Cage has not been this strapping and effective in a role in years as he taps deep into the recesses of his character that is beset by strange contradictions.  So many of Cage’s more infamously wretched performances have relied on his histrionic mannerisms and overly caffeinated camera mugging (which, depending on the role, can be either welcoming...or an obtrusive burden), but here there’s leanness to his performance that never requires overzealous or over-the-top leanings.  He’s paired resoundingly well with Sheridan, who was so shockingly genuine in MUD with Matthew McConaughey last year, and here he gives an equally mesmerizing turn playing opposite Cage.  Sheridan just might be one of the more attune and discipline young actors working today; there’s rarely a wrong or false note in any of his performances. 

Something needs to be said regarding Gary Poulter’s work as Gary’s sickeningly abusive father.  JOE received some press for the casting of Poulter, who was a real-life homeless and alcoholic man that was suffering from chronic illness before he was found dead in a shallow body of water in September of last year.  If anything, this seems like a cruel manner of life imitating art and vice versa, as Poulter is so stunningly immersed in his role of a vile and reprehensible old coot that there’s rarely a moment when you doubt his credibility on screen.  There have been many unpardonable human beings that are beyond reform and rehabilitation that have occupied movies before, but Gary is on a whole other twisted playing field of malevolence in itself.  A posthumous Oscar nomination just could be a likely possibility for Poulter here. 

Watching JOE I was constantly reminded that something the late Roger Ebert once said about depressing movies: Only bad movies are depressing.  JOE is a work that’s so austere and miserable that you want to immediately go home after screening it and hug the ones that matter to you and not let go.  The film, beyond investing in wanton human misery, is also punctuated by moments of barbaric violence that will leave the most desensitized of filmgoer anxiously flinching at times.  Yet, for as pessimistic as this film and its characters are, JOE is emerges as a small-scale masterpiece of observant and moody filmmaking economy.  It thrusts you into its seedy and corrupt world in ways so few films do to the point where you feel like uneasy eyewitnesses to the events on screen.  

And, yes, just how satisfying is it to see Nicolas Cage jog our collective memories of the types of brilliant performances he gave years ago?  All of those recent career choices of his - plagued with roles that showed the once titanic and empowered screen actor at his thespian worst – are seemingly forgiven now with his tour de force work in JOE.  Welcome back, sir.  We missed you.

  H O M E