David Gordon Green is one of the strangest and most unpredictable directors working right now. Starting off with independent dramas like George Washingtonand Undertow, he quickly moved to studio stoner comedies with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. The thing is, that decision seemed to be made by him and not determined by outside forces. Recently he has been returning to more independent fare and Joe marks a unique descent into darkness from the director, featuring some of the most brutally dim scenes from him. Even still, there is a touch of levity to the film that balances well, even if the film wanders aimlessly at points.
The plot revolves around Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con who becomes a mentor to a 15 year old named Gary (Tye Sheridan) who lives with his homeless family that is constantly abused by the alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter). As their relationship grows, Joe discovers he has to choose between redemption or ruin in order to help Gary.
Many have called this Cage’s return to serious acting, a reminder that he can truly turn in great performances. That’s only half-true. Cage has always known something throughout his career that the rest of us as a film-watching culture have only begun to catch onto. He hasn’t ever been phoning in his performances. He always goes for the Hail Mary, he just doesn’t always throw it to the right player. I can’t deny he has been a part of some awful films, but he elevates those films from intolerable trash to camp classics. Who else could do that?
With that being said, there is something wonderfully toned down about this performance, something much more tender and human than we are used to from him. It feels almost autobiographical in a way, his character is constantly trying to suppress his destructive nature almost like Cage is trying to suppress his own wildness of acting. When he has to release the destruction inside of him, it results in scenes you would almost expect in the next Ghost Rider film.
Tye Sheridan is without a doubt a wonder to watch perform. With this film, he has gone 3-3 in his young career. At the precipice of manhood, his character has been denied a childhood his whole life. Still childlike wonder leaks through amongst the hardened reality. The way Sheridan can tap into both the child and adult in the same scene is nothing short of impressive. Sheridan has a long and illustrious career ahead of him, and I can’t wait to see where it takes him.
Gordon Green likes to cast non-actors in his films, lending a more realistic feel to the character interactions. Most of the time it’s in the peripheral supporting roles, but here he gives the role of Wade to a homeless non-actor he found named Gary Poulter. Poulter’s performance is filled with a lifetime of experiences that only he could bring to the table. The fact that he died on the streets a few months after filming is tragic, but his performance is haunting and lasting.
Gordon Green manages to tell a story that is full of conventions but sidesteps them with subtle nuances. The drunk abusive father isn’t just that. He is human as well, and Gordon Green even allows scenes where he and Gary connect as a father and son only could, which makes the rest of Wade’s decisions all the more heartbreaking to witness.
Gordon Green tends to display his character’s internal strife through the landscape around them. In George Washington, the kids roamed the industrial wasteland around them, trying to find innocence in the destruction around them. In last year’s severely under-appreciated Prince Avalanche the scorched forest represented the duo at their crossroads in life, the bridges of their past burned down. As the end approached and they found a way to move on, slight touches of greenery began to return to the landscape. In Joe, the nature metaphor is heavy handed but fitting nonetheless. Joe’s job is poison the trees so that the lumber company can legally chop them down. This is practically a more directly physical manifestation of his effect on those around him. He sees himself as little more than destructive. He might be right, but the last shot sees that he may have helped restore the landscape and those around him through his destruction.