Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Directed by: David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”)
Written by: Gary Hawkins (debut)
Though plenty of independent filmmakers shake things up with studio films and projects outside of their wheelhouse, few have taken the path of director David Gordon Green. After starting out with hard hitting independent films like “Snow Angels,” Green spent three years exclusively directing broad, studio comedies. Some of his work was well received, like 2008’s “Pineapple Express” and a dozen episodes of the brash HBO series “Eastbound & Down,” while others like “The Sitter” and “Your Highness” were critically panned and box office duds. After getting back to his independent roots with last year’s “Prince Avalanche,” Green continues down the small-scale path with “Joe.”
After bouncing from town to town with his family, Gary (Tye Sheridan) lands in a small Texas town looking for work. When he stumbles across some workers in a forest, Gary gets a job with Joe (Nicholas Cage) and the two quickly form a bond with one another. But when Gary’s alcoholic and abusive father puts Gary and his family in danger, Joe must decide if he should overstep his boundaries and help.
Despite the fact that he is one of the most frequently mocked A-list actors in Hollywood today, Cage is a former Oscar-winner and “Joe” is a reminder of how brilliant he can be. In Cage’s case, less is more, and by keeping things simple and understated, he is able to bring out a well-rounded and complex character. Joe is less of a role model and more of an occasionally belligerent, heavy drinker with a host of bad habits. The fact that Joe still comes across as a warm and caring paternal figure despite these character flaws is a testament to Cage’s performance and character design. Like last year’s “Mud” in which Sheridan held his own alongside a mammoth performance from Matthew McConnaughey, Sheridan never feels out matched in his scenes with Cage. There might be some typecasting issues down the line, but Sheridan is well on his way to being a very strong actor. When put together, especially in a segment of the film where the two go on the lookout for Joe’s dog, the two show dynamic chemistry.
Part of what makes “Joe” such a successful film is the atmosphere that Green is able to capture. Green often makes use of local “non-actors” in his films, which often give his projects a hint of realism. For this film, Green gave the huge role of Gary’s father to a homeless alcoholic man named Gary Poulter. Poulter, who actually passed away shortly after filming ended, gives a performance that is hilarious, extremely frightening and unsettling. It is simply astonishing that not only Poulter was able to pull this off, but that Green was able to coax such a brilliant performance out of a homeless stranger.
Story-wise, the film takes a few dark and heavy turns and certainly doesn’t shy away from displaying violence or grave subject matter. There is nothing glamorous about the world that Green has built, but the circumstances and stakes feel real and legitimate. As previously alluded to, “Joe” completely thrives on character design. Gary, while still being a minor, is a completely perseverant worker stuck in a terrible family situation. Joe, built from the same cloth, is tortured and nowhere near a good influence for Gary. Still, the two are drawn to each other. While many reasons point to this being a troublesome friendship, it is somehow mutually beneficial.
As good as “Joe” is, there are a few issues. The main villain in the film appears sparingly with very little context and mostly only to serve as a foil. There are also a few stretches, segments, and tone shifts in the film that feel haphazardly put together. Regardless “Joe” is a true and earnest film that features a mostly strong, albeit minimalistic script, a heaping handful of very strong performances and serves as a reminder that Cage is still very capable of a powerful performance.