"Joe" is being trumpeted as the return of beloved movie star Nicholas Cage to the realms of serious acting. He gets a pretty juicy role here as the title character, an ex-convict with a past who befriends a troubled teenager. However, this is also the comeback of director David Gordon Green, who got sidetracked with idiot mainstream comedies like "Your Highness" and "The Sitter" for too many years, and is finally finding his way back to his low-budget dramatic roots with "Joe" and last year's odd but interesting "Prince Avalanche." And it also features another major turn by Tye Sheridan, the young actor last seen in "Mud" and "The Tree of Life."
Sheridan plays Gary, a Southern kid living on the brink. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vile, abusive alcoholic who puts his son in the position of sole provider and protector of his mother and sister. Gary gets a job clearing trees with a work crew run by Joe (Cage), who is impressed with Gary's work ethic and determination, but reluctant to get involved personally. Joe has a violent streak he's been trying to keep at bay, and has made enemies, including Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local degenerate who nurses a major grudge. At stake is the modest, but honest life he's managed to build for himself with girlfriend Lacy (Heather Kafka), and his small circle of friends. However, Joe inevitably finds himself giving into his instincts on Gary's behalf.
I admit that I nearly forgot what a low-key, subtle performance from Nicholas Cage looked like after years of his notorious hamming around in one bad blockbuster after another. As Joe, he still gets a few explosive outbursts to play with, but they're well grounded in the context of a thoughtful examination of a complicated man who is caught between the need for self-preservation and the new role of surrogate parent to a boy who sorely needs one. For the first time in a long time I forgot that I was watching Nicholas Cage onscreen, forgot about all those tell-tale mannerisms and wild-eyed facial contortions he brings out so often, and just got to enjoy his work. And it was great to see.
Tye Sheridan also continues to impress, now three for three in a great run of films. His character here shares about equal screen time and narrative emphasis with Joe, and is equally as compelling. Sheridan is so good at embodying inner conflict, and Gary has plenty to be conflicted about. His best scenes are where we see his dark side manifest, where we see the building frustration and rage growing in him that might become a more destructive force than any singular, immediate antagonist. The surrogate parent-child relationship that forms between Joe and Gary is a pretty convincing one, unsentimental and unforced, that manages to hit all the right notes.
The real star of the picture, however, is its setting. David Gordon Green's personal projects share quite a bit in common with the work of Jeff Nichols, who directed the superficially similar "Mud," another coming of age tale set in the American South starring Tye Sheridan. I admire "Mud," but I prefer "Joe" for its wonderful, simmering tensions, it's rich atmosphere, harshly beautiful environs, and its rougher cast of damaged characters. There's an uncomfortably genuine nastiness to the villains, particularly Wade, which really enhances the impact of the occasional bursts of jarring violence within the film's universe.
This commitment to authenticity extends throughout the film. Everything we see is run down or worn, and value is tied heavily to functionality. Dogs are a major metaphor, kept by several characters for protection rather than companionship. "Joe" doesn't move quickly, and many of the opening scenes are devoted to showing the daily routines and the familiar rhythms of Joe's life. I've seen the film described as an exercise in misery and impoverishment, but there are several moments of happiness and small victories that show the characters have plenty in their lives worth fighting for.
"Joe" has a lot of themes and ideas that have seen a resurgence in American film lately: Southern culture, coming-of-age stories, deteriorating working class families, and rural survival thrillers. The mix here is very strong, and "Joe" works as both a character drama and a more accessible genre picture. I sincerely hope that this isn't just a digression for both David Gordon Green and Nicholas Cage, because this is the best thing that either of them have been involved with in several years. I have to wonder why Green hasn't ever tried making a more profile thriller.
As for Nicholas Cage, I didn't realize how much I'd missed him in films like this and roles like this. "Joe" could be a real turning point for him if he wants it to be.