Friday, April 18, 2014
Directed by David Gordon Green
Nicolas Cage is a fascinating Hollywood persona. He has serious acting chops, but they're so often misplaced in performances and films that can't handle him. He's not like other movie stars, who can just turn down the level of performance depending on the material. Brad Pitt will drop into Mr. and Mrs. Smith and sleepwalk through a role that's essentially guaranteed money; Nic Cage stars in Con Air and you get moments like this. Every role presents a great opportunity for him to flex his muscles, to show off to the world, TO ACT!! There was a period in the last decade where it seemed liked he was making a giant fool of himself. There are entire spaces of the internet dedicated to how ridiculous he is in The Wicker Man, Next and both of the Ghost Rider movies. People forgot that he was once even considered a talented performer. Surely, if all you knew of Nic Cage was from those films you could have never anticipated anything like what he gives in Joe - a strong performance that plays upon the loose cannon aspect of his acting style. You could imagine Nic Cage escaping the world to kill trees in the rural American South. It's the kind of performance that should restore your faith.
Joe is by David Gordon Green, a filmmaker who has grinded his teeth on bleak Southern dramas. When he's not caught up in Danny McBride comedies (he's the director behind Pineapple Express - a very good film - and Your Highness - a truly awful one), he's one of the most dependable directors available to translate the downtrodden plight of Southern lower class. He had broken away from that material for a short while (again, see his four year stint working with McBride), but last year's Prince Avalanche was a return to form - an assurance that the man behind George Washington and All The Real Girls was still lingering around. His latest film is not of the quality of Washington or even Avalanche. It's plot is too dependent on melodrama, Green's ethereal drifting feels completely without guidance. And yet, it still feels better to see Green fail like this then to watch him toil away on something like Eastbound & Down - which in and of itself is its own artistic achievement, and a very funny show, but that always seemed like Danny McBride's baby in which Green was along for the ride. That is not the case with Joe.
Cage plays the titular Joe, a rugged, bearded man who runs his own business poisoning trees in the forest to help forestation companies plant new, healthier trees. Joe employs close to a dozen men for this job, most of them black, and even drives them all around in his truck. He has a reputation of being tough, but fair, and the respect that his employees have for him is clearly evident. Outside of work, Joe boozes and broods at home, trying to his best to keep his infamously raging temper in control. Joe's past is littered with assaults and jail sentences, but his actions are principled even if they are extreme. Cage's portrayal of Joe is brilliant, because Joe's simmering restraint of his anger is not unlike Cage having to fight his own instinct to burn down the screen with his acting. It's one of his best performances in a good, long while. Joe is approached by a fifteen-year-old named Gary (Tye Sheridan, of Mud fame) for some work. Joe's explanation of the job's requirements and duties is curt, meant to sound unappealing, but Gary is quick to join up with his grew and is eager to do a good job. But Gary's home life is hectic, taking frequent beatings from a dangerously alcoholic father (Gary Poulter) who goes by the nickname G-Daawg. As Joe becomes more entangled with Gary, he begins to worry where his rage will take him if tries to protect him against the abusive G-Daawg.
Like most of Green's work, Joe meanders a bit. Some of the sidebars - including a sequence where Joe and Gary get waisted and drive around town looking for Joe's dog - are amusing, but there are large plot points that take up large portions of the film that detract from the film's brighter moments. There's a sequence including a woman named Connie (Adriene Mishler) who becomes involved with Joe when she has to leave her own uncomfortable home situation, but that story peters out without a whole lot of payoff. There's also a more unappealing subplot involving a deranged man named Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins, looking like a super-grody Peter Sarsgaard) who picks fights with both Joe and Gary. Willie-Russell is meant as the film's ominous antagonist, but his menace is neutered by the true evil of G-Daawg; the film doesn't have much use for the redundancy of both of these characters and the film becomes constipated. Prince Avalanche also trailed off on its own tangents, but it was still contained (also, Avalanche was about a half-hour shorter) and seemed a whole lot more focused in its view. Joe feels like it could have been great, but it becomes too enamored with its own side characters - even the ones that are most unattractive - and it takes away from the film's main strength, which is Cage and Sheridan who share a fantastic chemistry when the film chooses to focus on them.