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

So you made contact with the French operative?

Atomic Blonde (2017)
(SPOILERS) Well, I can certainly see why Focus Features opted to change the title from The Coldest City (the name of the graphic novel from which this is adapted). The Coldest City evokes a nourish, dour, subdued tone, a movie of slow-burn intrigue in the vein of John Le Carré. Atomic Blonde, to paraphrase its introductory text, is not that movie. As such, there’s something of a mismatch here, of the kind of Cold War tale it has its roots in and the furious, pop-soaked action spectacle director David Leitch is intent on turning it into. In the main, his choices succeed, but the result isn’t quite the clean getaway of his earlier (co-directed) John Wick.

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

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…

Dude. You’re my hero and shit.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was going to say I’d really like to see what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve besidesBreaking Bad spinoffs. But then I saw that he had a short-lived series on CBS a few years back (Battle Creek). I guess things Breaking Bad-related ensure an easy greenlight, particularly from Netflix, for whom the original show was bread and butter in its take up as a streaming platform. There’s something slightly dispiriting about El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, though. Not that Gilligan felt the need to return to Jesse Pinkman – although the legitimacy of that motive is debatable – but the desire to re-enter and re-inhabit the period of the show itself, as if he’s unable to move on from a near-universally feted achievement and has to continually exhume it and pick it apart.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

You ever heard the saying, “Don’t rob the bank across from the diner that has the best donuts in three counties”?

2 Guns (2013)
(SPOILERS) Denzel Washington is such a reliable performer, that it can get a bit boring. You end up knowing every gesture or inflection in advance, whether he’s playing a good guy or a bad guy. And his films are generally at least half decent, so you end up seeing them. Even in Flight (or perhaps especially in Flight; just watch him chugging down that vodka) where he’s giving it his Oscar-nominatable best, he seems too familiar. I think it may be because he’s an actor who is more effective the less he does. In 2 Guns he’s not doing less, but sometimes it seems like it. That’s because the last person I’d ever expect blows him off the screen; Mark Wahlberg.

Who would want to be stuck in a dream for ten years?

Top 10 Films 2010-19
Now, you may glance down the following and blanche at its apparent Yankophile and populist tendencies. I wouldn’t seek to claim, however, that my tastes are particularly prone to treading on the coat tails of the highbrow. And there’s always the cahiers du cinema list if you want an appreciation of that ilk. As such, near misses for the decade, a decade that didn’t feature all that many features I’d rank as unqualified classics, included Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Tron: Legacy, The Tree of Life, The Guard and Edge of Tomorrow.

Don’t make me… hungry. You wouldn’t like me when I’m… hungry.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)
(SPOILERS) It’s fortunate the bookends of Marvel’s Phase One are so sturdy, as the intervening four movies simply aren’t that special. Mediocre might be too strong a word (although at least one qualifies for that status), but they amountto a series of at-best-serviceable vehicles for characters rendered on screen with varying degrees of nervousness and second guessing. They also underline that, through the choices of directors, no one was bigger than the franchise, and no one had more authority than supremo Kevin Feige. Which meant there was integrity of overall vision, but sometimes a paucity of it in cinematic terms. The Incredible Hulk arrived off the back of what many considered a creative failure and commercial disappointment from Ang Lee five years earlier yet managed on just about every level to prove itself Hulk’s inferior. A movie characterised by playing it safe, it’s now very much the unloved orphan of the MCU, with a lead actor recast and a main c…