(SPOILERS) We live in heady days, those of us who are Nicolas Cage aficionados. So many lousy movies, so little time. Recently he starred in a fully-fledged Christian movie. One can surmise from this that it can only be a matter of time before his accountant persuades him to make the latest Uwe Boll masterpiece. Occasionally though, just occasionally, a picture pops up featuring Nic that is actually really good, that reminds us of the pre-action movie era Cage. It happened with Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, New Orleans (as giddily deranged as anything he’s done) and it’s happened again with Joe. Even his hairpiece is less invasive than usual.
That might be because a mighty beard offsets it. Cage plays the titular Joe. He’s an ex-con who ploughs a living by supervising the poisoning of trees. Having done so, the lumber company is then legally entitled to chop them down (they’ll be dead; even Joe’s straight-and-narrow existence is based upon destructive acts). He drinks a lot, smokes so much he’s afflicted by a hacking cough that sounds like it’s on the verge of turning into something much nastier, and spends much of his time attempting to keep a lid on the barely suppressed rage that lurks within. When he vents, it leads to bar fights and showdowns with cops. Joe keeps a nasty great bulldog tied up outside his house that seems to symbolise the restrictions that bind him, barely, to his daily grind (and very tellingly, when he lets the dog off the leash, the results are bloody).
But those who know and like Joe swear by him, and he does right by his day labourer work party. Joining the crew is Gary (Tye Sheridan, whose hit ratio is three for three with this, Tree of Life and Mud), who has recently arrived in the impoverished town with his sister, mother, and abusive alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter, a homeless man and novice actor whom director David Gordon Green found and cast; Poulter died a couple of months after filming). Both these characters live in raw worlds filled with violence, and Joe gradually becomes something of a foster parent and warped role model to Gary. He promises to sell him his car and offers broke-backed wisdom that involves drinking and driving and how to hit on girls through cigarette lighter-flicking prowess.
Joe’s dilemma is whether or not to turn the other cheek when it comes to Wade’s treatment of his son. He allows some-time girlfriend Connie (Adrienne Mishler) to stay with him when her domestic situation turns abusive (she eventually leaves, because he cannot make the room for her emotionally, cannot escape the rigid cell he has made for himself, cannot see any point to any of it),; she blanches at his attitude to Gary’s welfare, but he is well aware that if pushed he will barrel over the edge (“I know what keeps me alive is restraint”).
We see this on several occasions. Ronnie Gene Blevins’ Willie-Russell (a tremendous portrayal of cowardly machismo, whose favourite anecdote about going through a windshield is appropriately curtailed on the last occasion he trots it out) takes a pot-shot at Joe following a bar fight, and on the next encounter Joe can barely summon the self-control to stop himself from thrusting a broken beer bottle in Wille-Russell’s face. Later Joe rages at an over-zealous cop, disarming him and taking him in a neck hold. As kindly sheriff Earl (A J Wilson McPhaul) tells him, he acts like he wants to go back inside. And maybe part of him does. It’s why, when events inflame, there’s a sense of inevitability to Joe’s fate.
Sheridan seems to have cornered the market in sincere but turbulent young southern angst, and his performance here is utterly naturalistic. Indeed, so is Poulter’s (who was also an alcoholic); there are no joins to be seen. The consequence is that their performances are more powerful and engrossing than Cage’s, good as he is. Wade might be the most horrifyingly twisted, eaten away depiction of (lack of) fatherhood the screen has seen in many a year; certainly in the blithe conviction with which he is portrayed.
We think Wade can’t get any worse when he beats a homeless booze hound’s skull to a pulp, but that’s before he pimps his daughter to Willie-Russell (she doesn’t speak, testifying to years of abuse at her father’s hands). The scenario of the inveterate drunk indulged by a fearful family may be a familiar one (“It ain’t his fault”, Gary’s mother pleads defensively), and Joe’s weary response to the abuse testifies to this, but the cadaverous, soulless, eaten-away malevolence of Wade is something else entirely. Gary is able to give Willie-Russell a beating, but he’s unable to challenge the man who failed to raise him.
The inevitable showdown, where Joe unleashes fury, follows the now classical path of the doomed anti-hero. Joe isn’t going to make it out alive, but he has saved the boy who might have been destroyed. And Gary appears to take a path of moderation where Joe could not; he inherits the car and dog, and works on growing trees where before they were killed. It’s a vaguely hopeful ending, but the picture is too sombre and brooding to fall for seizing it. Indeed, the picture is seeped in brewing danger; a fine score from Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo summons the spectre of ambient nightmares, as if Michael Mann was dragged backwards through a David Lynch film. Tim Orr, David Gordon Green’s regular cinematographer lends a naturalistic mise-en-scène, although visually the darkness is at times very inky indeed.
Gary Hawkins has adapted Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, and the world depicted, one of working class poor, is a male-dominated one. If there’s a criticism, it’s a function of the picture’s focus; all the women are victims and whores, although it must be said no one we encounter is in exactly great shape (Earl perhaps aside).
I haven’t paid much attention to David Gordon Green’s output of late, mainly because of his detour into the sub-Apatow oafish comedy milieu of Seth Rogen et al. Perhaps the twin failures of Your Highness and The Sitter caused him to reconsider and retrench in his formative indie oeuvre. Certainly, his talents would be far better served there than wasting his time on lame stoner comedies with his buds.
As for Cage, well he’s terrifically broken. I’m doubtful that he will persuade his naysayers with this performance; it’s too late for that, and too much damage has been done. Amidst the gloom and strife, there’s even the odd moment of classic Cage humour; his delivery of “That dog is a asshole”. While Joe’s fate has an air of inevitability for a certain type of unreconstituted hero, it’s not without curious accompanying plot beats. Joe initially shows all-important restraint, until the third man (whom he does not know) he releases shoots him. Then his failure to kill Wade leads to unforeseen suicide of the latter. What impelled Wade to do so? I half wondered if it was the look Joe gave him; I’m not wholly convinced that the realisation of what he had done to his daughter suddenly possessed him (but why was he standing there on the bridge waiting anyway?) Perhaps Wade just recognised this was the end of the line and took the path of least resistance.
Joe has drawn inevitable comparisons with another three-letter southern tale of a rebel’s friendship with a teenage boy. That’s a bit of a false call, since tonally the two couldn’t be more different. Mud makes a point of adopting the lyrical, poetic approach. It’s one imbued with hopefulness, which infects its unlikely upbeat denouement. Joe’s a very different affair, where stark realities allow no escape from the here and now. And so its ending is a reprieve, but a melancholic one at best.