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

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

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.

So the devil's child will rise from the world of politics.

The Omen (1976) (SPOILERS) The coming of the Antichrist is an evergreen; his incarnation, or the reveal thereof, is always just round the corner, and he can always be definitively identified in any given age through a spot of judiciously subjective interpretation of The Book of Revelation , or Nostradamus. Probably nothing did more for the subject in the current era, in terms of making it part of popular culture, than The Omen . That’s irrespective of the movie’s quality, of course. Which, it has to be admitted, is not on the same level as earlier demonic forebears Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

These are not soda cans you asked me to get for you.

The Devil’s Own (1997) (SPOILERS) Naturally, a Hollywood movie taking the Troubles as a backdrop is sure to encounter difficulties. It’s the push-pull of wanting to make a big meaningful statement about something weighty, sobering and significant in the real world and bottling it when it comes to the messy intricacies of the same. So inevitably, the results invariably tend to the facile and trite. I’m entirely sure The Devil’s Own would have floundered even if Harrison Ford hadn’t come on board and demanded rewrites, but as it is, the finished movie packs a lot of talent to largely redundant end.

I think I’m Pablo Picasso!

Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021) (SPOILERS) I get the impression that, whatever it is stalwart Venom fans want from a Venom movie, this iteration isn’t it. The highlight here for me is absolutely the wacky, love-hate, buddy-movie antics of Tom Hardy and his symbiote alter. That was the best part of the original, before it locked into plot “progression” and teetered towards a climax where one CGI monster with gnarly teeth had at another CGI monster with gnarly teeth. And so it is for Venom: Let There Be Carnage . But cutting quicker to the chase.