Nicholas Cage is a visionary; he strides boundaries.
Few can claim a filmography as eclectic as his: from Rumble Fish to Vampires Kiss, through Con Air and Face/Off, Adaptation and Lord of War, to Ghost Rider, Kick-Ass, and now Joe.
Though there are certainly gems amidst the hundred-or-so roles on his IMDb page, there’s also a lot of schlock – the inevitable consequence of appearing in, recently, up to four films a year. You can almost forget that Cage is, in fact an Oscar winner, for his fearless performance as a self-loathing alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas; Joe goes some way towards reminding us of that fact.
Directed by former art-house figure David Gordon Green – he’s also responsible for crass forgettable comedies like Your Highness and The Sitter – Joe is a study of people trying to live up to their better selves; well, mostly.
On one end of the spectrum, we have Cages’ Joe, grizzled and hulking. By day, he leads a team of workmen, killing of trees in the backwoods; by night, he snuggles up to the dark-haired Lacy (Heather Kafka), for whom he has affection but little love. Taciturn but friendly, Joe struggles to keep his temper in check – it’s given him trouble before. His first instinct is to lash out, despite himself.
On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Wade, a shiftless, dead-eyed drunk, played by the late Gary Poulter. Poulter was homeless and alcoholic; as such, grey-haired and scruffy, he feels utterly authentic, sharing the screen with Cage in their scenes together as few can.
Between them is Wade’s son, Gary (Tye Sheridan) – on the one hand, good-natured and hard-working; on the other, brash and rightfully full of fury. He finds himself drawn to Joe and Joe to him but Wade intrudes.
Based on a novel by Larry Brown and shot in the wilds of Texas, Joe shows us degradation, both of urban environments and the human spirit. This is the type of place where violent thrives, where there’s always something trying to drag you down. Joe himself has an enmity with the slithery, slash-faced Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) – “I went through a car windshield and I don’t give a f**k!” – and repeated showdowns with the cops.
Meanwhile, Wade seems to drift, or rather stumbles, through life with relative easy; his shrewd eyes glittering, his stalking of another drunk along the railway tracks is truly chilling (Joe is a film of train tracks but no locomotives).
There’s also, however, a sense of community spirit for those willing to chip in: Joe slices deer steaks off road-kill for a neighbor, banters with his crew, the man who runs the local convenience store; it his agreeing to give Gary a job that sets the plot in motion, such as it is.
Gary Hawkins’ subtle, insightful screenplay doesn’t belabour the growing father-son relationship between Joe and Gary; there’s nothing OTT or cliché, everything is cool and matter-of-fact. Combined with Green’s understated direction and Tim Orr’s crisp cinematography – even amidst the unmapped muddy pines and un-signposted graveled streets, you feel you know exactly where you are – and Joe comes across as a deeply humanist film.
More naturalistic than A Single Shot or Out of the Furnace (though Blevins’ performance does recall Woody Harrelson in the latter), Cage tones down the histrionics that have often marked his work, conveying the sense of Joe as a chained bear: he can’t fly – he has nowhere to go – but he doesn’t want to fight; prison seems like the inevitable result.
As another Kafka said (sorry, Heather), “There is hope, but not for us.”