|UK Release Date||25th July 2014|
|Director||David Gordon Green|
|Reviewed||28th July 2014|
Ah, what can we say about Nic Cage that hasn’t already been said? Not a great deal to be honest. In turns utterly brilliant and completely baffling, Cage has a habit of being unpredictable in the quality of his movie choices. For every Con Air, there is a Ghost Rider. For every Leaving Las Vegas, there is a Drive Angry. For every Wicker Man there is… dear lord he made The Wicker Man. Suffice to say it’s often pot luck with good old Nic. Wonder what would happen if you teamed him with the director of Eastbound & Down? We love Eastbound & Down.
Joe comes hot on the heals of last year’s standout Mud (from Jeff Nichols) and if you read a review that doesn’t mention that and this on the same page, I’d be very much surprised. Both tread very similar paths through the fringes of Southern society in the USA. Joe stars Nicolas Cage as a somewhat mysterious ex-con, now managing to eek out a living poisoning trees for developers so they can claim they were dead when they found them and subsequently clear them out. It’s not exactly honest work but he employs a mixed group of down-and-outs and seems like he trying to make a decent wage for proper hard work.
Into Joe’s life drifts Gary (Tye Sheridan), a fifteen going on thirty year old boy who desperately needs work for him and his father so he can take care of his mother and mute sister back at the condemned house they’re squatting in. Gary has a few anger issues, no doubt as the result of his treatment at the hands of his abusive alcoholic father Wade (sadly deceased non professional actor and homeless man, Gary Poulter) but he is determined to work hard doing anything that Joe puts him to work on and doggedly pursues Joe for more work even when Wade has sullied the pitch with his abysmal attitude to work. Meanwhile Joe is busy getting shot by locals he pissed off in a bar and disappointing his one time girlfriend who longs for the day he actually takes her out and holds a door open for her.
Although Cage is clearly the centre of the movie, a great deal of the impact comes from the interaction between Poulter and Sheridan. Sheridan shows again that he is a very promising young actor, easily shifting his Gary between genuine fear of his unpredictable, violent father and more tender moments when he mocks him lovingly for being too drunk not to spill his vodka. Gordon Green juggles the tone of the movie deftly for this, particularly when Gary leaves his drunken father to search for a ride, leading to a tense altercation with a local red neck on a bridge. Seemingly desperate to prove to himself and his father that he is in control, Gary takes one slap from the idiot before competently beating the larger man to within an inch of his life. It’s an impressive ten minutes of film that shows the fifteen year old side of Gary and a flinch-inducing view of his potential future.
Poulter is nothing short of astonishing for a man literally plucked off the streets for the role and the knowledge that he died there just after filming adds an even more melancholy edge to his character's horrific situation. Barely intelligible (certainly to someone not attune to southern drawl) for large periods, his Wade is a horror show of a man, at one point stalking another homeless man into the bushes before administering one of the more shocking beatings I’ve ever seen on screen. It's an awesome performance and one that you don't doubt for one horrible second.
Which brings us to Cage. Perfectly cast as a man who spends his life desperately attempting to keep his violent side under control, Cage likewise manages to rein in his more outlandish acting. It’s almost as if the effort of not acting like Nicolas Cage adds to his character and it works incredibly well. A simmering wreck of a man who seems to drag his dark past along behind him (though not in an obvious, bad guys are out to get me way), Joe always seems just one conversation away from either administering or receiving a beat down. Drinking, whoring, gambling and generally not doing anything that would remotely qualify him as a role model, Cage’s character makes for constantly interesting viewing. On the one occasion he hasn’t actually done anything wrong (having just donated his old truck to Gary and finally bought himself a new one), he gets pulled over by an over-eager rookie cop who receives an exasperated slap for his audacity.
Gordon Green is an equally interesting guy. I can’t claim to have seen much of his back-catalogue but on the basis of this movie, I feel like I owe him a re-read as I can’t reconcile Your Highness, Pineapple Express or the admittedly brilliant Eastbound & Down with this wonderfully buttoned down and explosive movie. Joe simmers along, dragging itself through the worst mire of civilisation at turns repressing everything then releasing everything in bouts of truly horrific violence. A dank, sweaty and creepy atmosphere hangs over the whole movie but at times it does take the time to peer out of the gloom to something brighter.
A solid supporting cast, consisting predominantly non-professional actors adds to the sense of deep south authenticity and boosts the already impressive central performances. It’s no spoiler to point out that although the movie is grim and violent, Gordon Green does end on a happier, almost wistful note that hints that perhaps Gary’s horrible upbringing isn’t quite the life sentence it appears to be. I’m glad that he does because of all the people in Joe’s sordid world, Gary is the one who really deserves a break. In this movie, even the dog isn’t innocent.
Check out the trailer here.