Skip to main content

I know what keeps me alive is restraint.

Joe
(2013)

(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.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Where’s the commode in this dungeon? I gotta have a squirt.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)
(SPOILERS) I’m not shy to admit that I fully bought into the Tarantino hype when he first arrived on the scene. Which, effectively took place with the UK’s reception of Reservoir Dogs (and its subsequent banning from home video), rather than the slightly tepid post-Sundance US response. That said, I think I always appreciated the “package” more than the piece itself. Don’t get me wrong, I admired the film for what it achieved, shrewdly maximising its effectiveness on a limited budget by, for example, making a virtue out of notshowing the all-important heist. But its influence was everything, more than the sum total of the film itself – that slow-motion parade in cheap matching suits (not so much Chris Penn’s track one), the soundtrack CD that was a fixture until, basically Pulp Fiction came out, the snatches of dialogue, most famously the “Like a Virgin” monologue, even the poster, adorning every student’s wall for the next half decade – so I wouldn’t quite say I …