With its stark rural background and the people who really look like its squalid inhabitants, David Gordon Green’s new film “Joe” feels real at every minute. As we are absorbed by how it takes its time to establish its mood and characters, the movie leisurely but thoughtfully moves around not only its distinctive characters but also their gloomy world where they do not see much hope of escape amid ever-present violence and poverty in their shabby daily life. This is surely not a pleasant sight at all, but its gritty character drama is compelling to watch as closely observing despair and struggle from its human characters, and it gradually moves toward the ending which is not a mere arriving point but an inevitable payoff.
Gary(Tye Sheridan) is a teenager living in a rural town somewhere in Texas, and the life has been very difficult for this young boy. His father Wade(Gary Poulter), who is also known as G-Daawg, is an alcoholic abuser who is no help to his family, and the main occupation of this useless bum is taking any money he can find in the house. Gary’s mother(Brenda Isaacs Booth) has turned a blind eye to her husband’s abusive behaviors in her helpless position, and Gary’s young sister Dorothy(Anna Niemtschk) has been mute for some unknown reason(I suspect that her father was probably responsible for it, but that is just my speculation).
Although he is frequently beaten by his father as shown during the opening scene, Gary is a tough kid ready to get any job for supporting his family, and that is how he comes to meet Joe(Nicholas Cage), an ex-con operating on behalf of some local lumber company. He and the laborers hired by him poison the trees in a local forest, and, once their job is done, the company is allowed to clear the area for planting more profitable trees later. This is not exactly a respectable job, but Joe and his crew are glad to get a chance to earn money, and they do their job well as depicted in their work scenes.
While not entirely free from his past, Joe is a diligent and principled man trying to make his life better, and we can sense how much his crew like and respect him even when they are just talking about mundane matters. Not so surprisingly, he soon becomes a father figure to Gary while he works under Joe’s supervision, and Joe comes to care a lot about Gary while helping him as much as he can. When Gary suggests a deal on Joe’s used vehicle, he gladly accepts the deal, and he also suggests a reasonable price for Gary.
But not everything looks good in their world. As Gary struggles with his family matter more than before, Joe is also reminded of his dark history of violence again as facing the fact that he must do something to save Gary from the same fate he was fallen into a long time ago. As a guy who experienced a hard time at the state penitentiary, he has been trying to stay out of troubles while quietly living alone with his pet bulldog, but his dark side still remains inside him, and he cannot help himself sometimes even though he is well aware of that he can possibly be sent back to jail if he is not careful.
Nicholas Cage, who has recently been mired in a number of forgettable/atrocious films, is surprisingly calm and restrained as the title role. While he may deserve some spanking for appearing in bad films such as “Season of the Witch”(2011) and “Trespass”(2011), Cage has been an interesting actor wildly going up and down in his career, and he is always terrific to watch whenever he tunes himself right to good movies such as “Leaving Las Vegas”(1995) and “Adaptation.”(2002).
As he previously did in Werner Herzog’s “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans”(2009), Cage proves here again that he has lost none of his talent, and the result is one of the best performances in his bumpy but solid career. He fully immerses himself into his character to give us the touching portrayal of a conflicted man, and the small details in his nuanced performance tell us a lot about what is inside Joe even when he does not say much. He also keeps his acting under control even when his character is driven to emotionally critical point during several moments, and it is a testament to his talent that he looks as realistically plain as the other actors in the film. His co-actor Tye Sheridan, who has been a new young talent to watch since his performances in “The Tree of Life”(2011) and “Mud”(2012), holds his own place besides Cage, and the development of the relationship between Joe and Gary is natural and convincing thanks to the unaffected interactions between Cage and Sheridan.
The movie is also sort of a comeback work for the director David Gordon Green, who made a breakthrough debut with “George Washington”(2000) as a new exciting American independent filmmaker and then suddenly took a left turn with commercial comedy film “Pineapple Express”(2008). I must confess that his ludicrous comedy “Your Highness”(2011) was one of my worst movie experiences during 2011, but, as he openly admitted, Green has just been doing whatever he wanted to, and it is nice to see that he is back in his usual territory with “Prince Avalanche”(2013) and this movie, which is based on the screenplay adapted from Larry Brown’s novel by Gary Hawkins.
Like his contemporary Jeff Nichols, Green is very good at capturing the vivid mood of American rural landscapes in his films, and his cinematographer Tim Orr, who has been working with Green since “George Washington”, captures several hauntingly beautiful moments in the film as looking around its shabby background and various people living inside it. Green also hired non-professional local actors as before, and that helps giving more genuine local flavor to his film. They are mixed well with experienced actors on the screen, and Gary Poulter is particularly excellent as Gary’s abusive father who keeps surprising us with how loathsome he can be while making others and himself more miserable. Poulter was actually a homeless guy who happened to be noticed by Green before shooting, and his effectively shaggy performance sometimes feels poignant if you know the fact that he died not long after the shooting was finished.
As I am frequently disappointed with those big blockbuster films, I sometimes encounter small but good films worthwhile to watch, and “Joe” is one of such cases. Rather than going through predictable plot points, it focuses on its mood and characters instead through organic storytelling, and it also shows some sense of light humor at times while never disrupting its overall tone. This is a powerful human drama with good atmosphere and performances, and I am very glad to see Cage and Green back in their element.