Nicolas Cage gives us an illuminating performance in "Joe," a movie about a good but troubled man who needs as much help as he gives. Joe is a man with a checkered past. He leads a team of black workers whose job is to poison unwanted trees that need to be cleared off someone's property. Into Joe's life comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), the drifter son of a drunk, abusive father named "G-Daawg" Wade (the incredible Gary Poulter—more on him in a bit). Gary asks Joe for work in order to take care of his mother and his mute sister, both of whom are also presumably abused by the vicious Wade. Later on, at Gary's request, Joe also hires on Wade, but unlike the extremely hard-working Gary, Wade proves to be shiftless and lazy, eliciting the ire of Joe's right-hand man Junior (the hilarious Brian Mays). Joe fires the father and son, but later rehires the son. When he isn't killing trees, Joe helps the poor folks of his town, dressing deer carcasses, running errands, and visiting the local house of ill repute for emotionally unsatisfying quickies. Joe is a longtime friend of the local sheriff, but this doesn't stop Joe from having run-ins with the law.
The story of "Joe" moves slowly and languidly; this isn't an action movie. As directed by David Gordon Green, "Joe" is more about atmosphere and character. We watch how Joe relates to the country folk around him; we witness his developing relationship with Gary, whom Joe desperately wants to rescue and protect; we watch helplessly as young Gary contends with his thieving, lying, and even murderous father.
I had a hard time figuring out whether Green was going for parody in this film. I've lived out in the boonies and have seen my share of hill folk, but "Joe" gives us an endless parade of poverty and nearly incomprehensible accents that borders on the cartoonish and stereotypical. In the end, I decided that Green was serious in his mission to portray life in the dismal, dreary American hinterlands, and that "Joe" is essentially about how purity of soul and nobility of heart can exist even in such a godforsaken place as the movie's unnamed town.
"Joe" comes to a head when the evil Wade makes a deal with another local miscreant named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) to pimp out Wade's mute daughter, of whom Gary is very protective. Gary turns to Joe for help in finding his sister, who has been driven out to an abandoned spot to be raped. I won't spoil the conclusion for you, except to say that Joe finally gives in to his darkest impulses, and people die. The aftermath of this incident is rich in symbolism, as Gary takes on a new job—this time as a planter of trees instead of as their killer.
Green's cinematography evokes everything that non-country folk hate and fear about the country: shabby houses; equally shabby general stores; dilapidated cars and trucks; oppressive weather; people with sleepy eyes, filthy teeth, and base motivations; shady law enforcement. His visuals evoke a host of "R" words: rusticated, ramshackle, rural, rickety, run-down. Green's vision of country life isn't one of diligent farmers, acres of gorgeous green crops, oneness with the earth, and hope for the future: rather, it's a picture of defeat, hopelessness, and lack of direction. Life doesn't move forward in Green's universe: it merely grinds to a halt and collects moss. Green's expert evocation of mood will sink into your soul.
Nicolas Cage turns in some of his better work as Joe; his performance is surprisingly subdued for an actor whose reputation, at least in recent years, has been based on wild-eyed overacting. Tye Sheridan, whom I've never seen before, struck me as perfectly natural in his role as young Gary, a kind soul who has suffered too much abuse at the hands of his violent dad. And I recall thinking, while watching "Joe" for the first time, that Gary Poulter, the actor who plays Gary's mean-drunk father, was utterly, absolutely convincing as Wade. It turns out there's a reason why: director David Gordon Green has a penchant for hiring locals and non-actors to appear in his films, and Poulter was an actual homeless drunk who got hired for the part of Wade. Up to that point, Poulter's acting résumé had listed only one other gig: a brief stint as a background extra in the TV series "thirtysomething." Poulter's sobriety was an issue on the set, and in a tragic twist, he was found dead, floating face-down at the shallow edge of an Austin lake, only a couple months after principal photography had concluded.
Watching the movie a second time was a completely different experience from watching it the first time once I came to understand how Green had made many of his casting choices. Brian Mays, in the role of Junior, Joe's second-in-command, is also a non-actor, and there's an awesome scene—apparently done ad lib—in which an angry Junior confronts Wade about his laziness. The shouting match that ensues is classic, and the knowledge that the performance is unscripted, with two non-actors going after each other, adds a distinct vérité feel to the proceedings. Poulter's acting turn has been described by one critic as "one of the great one-shot performances in the history of cinema." I'd have to agree. You won't soon forget Wade once you've experienced him. And you won't soon forget Gary Poulter.
"Joe" isn't an uplifting film. It's somber, brooding, meandering, and punctuated by violence. But it's a great film to see—for the intense, authentic portrayals that Green evoked from his actors if for no other reason. For Nicolas Cage, "Joe" amounts to penance for many of the duds he's churned out in recent years; the movie showcases a good actor's return to proper form. Watch "Joe," which I highly recommend, but be careful: by the end of the movie, you might be tempted to reach over and grab a scotch.
2-DO LIST ACCOMPLISHMENTS
2. A review of both "Tim's Vermeer" and "Jiro Dreams of Sushi."
3. A review of "Warrior," starring Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, and Nick Nolte.
4. Photos of my students giving you the finger (gonna mosaic out the fingers).
5. A review of Stephen R. Donaldson's The Last Dark.
6. A review of Suki Kim's Without You, There Is No Us.
7. A review of Bobcat Goldthwait's "God Bless America."
8. A review of "127 Hours," starring James Franco.
9. A long, long-promised review of "Oldboy."
10. A survey of student comments from my previous job.