Article By: Dan Clark
The pairing of director David Gordon Green and actor Nicholas Cage is an intriguing one. Green was once an indie darling winning critical praise for films like George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Snow Angels. Once big Hollywood got a hold of him many argued he lost his touch as the quality of his films dropped. When films like The Sitter and Your Highness failed critically and financially most figured he was the latest example of wasted potential. Last year he went back to basics with Prince Avalanche and saw some of that praise return. That praise will no doubt continue with his latest film Joe.
Nicolas Cage’s demise has been well documented. This once acclaimed actor is better known today as a YouTube sensation due to his crazy antics. This time around it appears Cage has rediscovered the magic of subtle acting and gives one of his best performances in years. Joe is a Southern gothic character study of a man seeking redemption in a world unwilling to give it to him. This multilayered rustic tale is emotionally wrought and authentically represented. Apparently Cage and Green bring out the best of one another.
Green and Cage are certainly the most notable names; however it is Tye Sheridan that is the lynchpin that ties everything together. He plays Gary, a young man on the precipice of deciding what type of man he is going to be. Homeless with a drunken and abusive father he finds an unlikely role model in Joe—an ex-con attempting to leave his past life behind. Sheridan plays Gary with honesty similar to his role in last year’s Mud. Soft spoken with a steady kindness, yet when tested you can see the true effect of his damage lifestyle as his harden demeanor takes control.
In Joe he finds the father figure his life severely lacks. Joe gives Gary a job and more importantly an opportunity for a way out. Unfortunately the rest of the world is apparently against giving Joe the same prospect. Local police and some of the town’s most beleaguered population is unwilling to let him move past his disparaging past. Redemption may be nothing more than a wish for both Joe and Gary.
Cage’s performance should not be undersold. Lately he has become a charactercher of himself. Here he is dialed back and subdued. His rage is bottled-up to the point of explosion. When he does let loose it is more directed and not the typical outlandish Cage we have come to expect. There is a tragedy to his attempt free himself from the weight of his past failure. He is classic mystifying man with a dark past and a heart of gold.
David Gordon Green creates a rural fairytale full of colorful characters. Green enjoys casting local actors and nonprofessionals and that is the case here. Within that casting he found a few standouts most notably Gary Poulter who plays Gary’s alcoholic father with a vicious anger. If he hadn’t unfortunately passed away shortly after filming he could have possibly found a new career in acting. Casting in this way gives the setting a vivid realism similar to recent films like Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is as much of a docudrama about a bucolic subculture as it is an actual narrative.
That narrative is as simple and straightforward as the people it depicts. Where it is going is obvious from the beginning and it never attempts to divert from its original destination. More concern is placed on journey and the participants than adding in unnecessary twist and turns. Within that storyline is a bleak tragedy of a man’s attempt to spite fate.
Fatherhood is a key thematic element as the film explores the hold it has on a person. Providing examples of the negative impact it can have when selfishness overrides personal reasonability, and the positive influence that can occur when it is handled with care and love. Fatherhood becomes a form of liberation and judgment. Failure lead’s Gary’s natural father into a downwards spiral, while giving Joe opportunity to prove his true worth.
Joe is a redemption tale made by two men looking to escape past failure. Both David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage remind the world of the talent that still resides in them. Hopefully there will be more films like Joe in both of their futures.