I will defend to the death my belief that Nicolas Cage can actually act. By ‘act’ I mean present us with a reality we believe is a wholly formed, complicated person who does not resemble the facade we associate with Cage the celebrity/action star. In “Joe” he achieves this and gives us a man we want to like but at times struggle to. And that’s good. “Joe” is directed by David Gordon Green and it is his ninth feature length project. It is notable that he has carved his path with comedies such as ‘”The Sitter” and “Pineapple Express” which feature high energy, weed soaked, 16-30 year old male hilarity. Green now draws his energy back, demonstrates restraint and nuance in “Joe” which I would have been hard pressed to believe him capable of. The film is based upon the only novel written by Larry Brown, and is the first feature length screenplay by Gary Hawkins. Green, Brown and Hawkins are all Southerners and the subtle realities of that culture, a deeply engrained culture of its own, is beautifully represented here. You will though find glaring stereotypes; Joe is white, his crew is all black, traditional good ol’ boy police officers are hotheads, and the modern ‘integrated’ south seems still, albeit peacefully, very segregated. It is a very good screenplay – sparse but not empty or undefined with carefully chosen words and phrases. It is completely believable and authentic.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a straightforward well known man in a small southern town which is nameless. He runs a crew of primarily African American men who poison trees so they can be easily cut down to plant trees of higher quality. A teenage boy, Gary, appears in the woods asking for work and thus begins the weaving of threads which form our story. It is a simple story and that is no criticism – rather it presents a good framework for the characters in “Joe” to evolve and that is where the strength of the film lies. One of the notable features of “Joe” is that other than Cage, and Tye Sheridan who plays Gary, there are little to no recognizable faces in the cast. I questioned whether it was possible to forget that Cage was himself in this role and whether he could effectively blend in with the the rest of the cast. By the end of the film I felt that he had inhabited the role completely and the invisible line of stature was erased. Tye Sheridan has matured into the right mix of boy and man, his body wiry but his focus and rage intense.The men in Joe’s crew have such natural rapport and chemistry that I wonder whether they were actually trained actors. Their interactions are so fluid it seems the film is part fiction and part documentary, and leads me to question whether much of their dialogue is improvised. There are scenes with exquisite balance and flow, such as when Joe’s crew shows Gary how to operate the machinery and the job’s basics responsibilities.There are other sequences which are wholly unexpected and take you by surprise. While the overarching storyline may be anything but new, the path that it takes to get to its destination is, and it does not pander to its audience. We know bad things will happen but Green does not shy away from ugliness and evil. To the contrary, he is so direct and matter of fact that when the evil comes it is as evil as it gets; utterly without remorse and depraved.
A notable factor of “Joe” is its art direction and color palette. It serves to define space and mood in a way which words cannot. The overall tonal quality of the film is dark and brooding, yet not noir. There is deeply saturated color but there is no glare. The spaces which Joe inhabits are red, blue, purple, gray, all tinted intensely and with passion. Contrast that to the sole location of impartiality, the place where all men are equal, where the different factions come together – the general store – which is white, bright and neutral. This vision and attention to detail elevates “Joe” to above average. The film is, ultimately, a solid character study. Gary is the lone soul moving forward in life, striding against a tide of people struggling to stay afloat from the pull of their own worst selves – of their most base impulses. Classic battle of good vs. evil, maybe, but with a bit more flair. For Tye Sheridan it is a foundation on which to build a very promising career. For Nicolas Cage it is a step in the right direction – back – to a role of humanity and frailty, and a welcomed change from flaming skulls and superhuman bad guys.
Director – David Gordon Green
Starring – Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins
118 minutes, Rated R
Movie Review Joe