Last year, formerly acclaimed indie director David Gordon Green, made a return to the smaller, rural Americana films that made his name with the enjoyable Prince Avalanche following a trio of broad, stupid studio comedies. Around the same time as Prince Avalanche was receiving its VOD release, Green already had his follow-up film Joe completed and into festivals, and has recently completed filming his next movie Manglehorn too. Maybe he’d just like everyone to forget about Your Highness and The Sitter as soon as possible? Like Avalanche, Joe is a low-budget, rural Texas set story, however while Avalanche possessed a breezy comedic tone, Joe is a far bleaker affair.
The film is in fact not just about Joe himself (Nicolas Cage) but almost equally about a teenage boy he encounters called Gary, played by upcoming young actor Tye Sheridan of last year’s very similar Mud. We’re not treated to any exposition about the troubles Joe’s background but soon come to learn the kind of man he is. An ex-convict who now runs a crew of workers hired to poison old trees so they can be removed, he’s a hard worker who treats him employees fairly. Then he tends to spend his free time drinking, gambling or frequenting a local brothel, and occasionally having violent exchanges with and aggressive and volatile local man. At work one day he encounters Gary, impressed by the teen’s confidence and willingness to work, he hires him on the spot. Gary has troubles of his own though, he, along with his family is currently squatting in an abandoned house, he’s been forced into taking care of himself for some time by his despicable, alcoholic wreck of a father, who physically beats him and takes his money. Lacking any real paternal influence in his life, Gary begins to bond with Joe.
I’ve always been a fan of Nicolas Cage but when he puts out so many films with seemingly zero quality control, it’s easy to understand how he becomes a bit of a joke to many people when we get the likes of Ghost Rider, Trespass or Stolen. However he never stopped being a good actor, there was nothing wrong with his understated work it last year’s otherwise mediocre The Frozen Ground for example, but every few years he delivers a performance that reminds us all just how great he can be. Adaptation, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, and now Joe. He’s extremely good here, conveying Joe’s internal struggle to be a generally good man to those around him without giving in to his darker tendencies. It’s a rare Cage performance whose quality I think almost every critic will agree on.
Opposite him, as the boy forced into being a man too soon, Tye Sheridan continues to show promise, this is only the 17-year old’s third film but I wasn’t surprised to see that he’s now got a large number of projects lined up for the immediate future. Apart from the two leads though, Green’s opted for authenticity by casting non-professional locals in all the film’s other roles. It’s an approach that works well, with the most eye-catching work coming from Gary Poulter as Gary’s despicable father. He really was a homeless alcoholic who died before the Joe was released.
David Gordon Green isn’t simply trying to rewind the clock and recapture the acclaim he received for his early work, there’s an underlying darkness to Joe that’s unlike any of his prior films. It’s an atmospheric, slow paced, chilling drama, and a welcome reminder of what Cage is capable of as an actor.