“Joe” offers Nicolas Cage a chance at artistic redemption much the way last year’s similarly atmosphere-soaked Southern noir “Mud” offered Matthew McConaughey a step forward in his own comeback.
Like McConaughey in “Mud,” Cage plays a man with a criminal past who befriends a boy. In both instances, Tye Sheridan plays the boy. Here, Sheridan is Gary, a teen with an abusive father (Gary Poulter) who seeks a job and help from Cage’s hard-working, ex-con character, Joe.
The good news for Cage is that his work in “Joe,” available on video on demand in Sacramento and in limited theatrical release in the Bay Area, shows greater range than his performances in all his C-grade action films tied together.
As a decent man trying to control a nasty rage problem, Cage taps the undercurrent of volatility that runs through all his performances. But instead of letting it spiral into those whisper-to-a-scream nasally outbursts that inspired “Saturday Night Live” parodies, he incorporates it into a nuanced performance.
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“Joe,” a visually lyrical but also violent and occasionally gruesome film steeped in backwoods atmosphere, gives Cage ample opportunity to go over the top. Instead, he fits seamlessly into the film’s landscape.
Joe hires Gary, a 15-year-old from a homeless, wandering family, on his forestry crew. The pair, who share a strong work ethic, get along well from the start, with Cage and Sheridan showing great ease in scenes together.
Joe quickly discovers the kid is being beaten by his father, Wade. But Joe’s own hair-trigger temper has betrayed him too often – once leading to a prison stay – for him to want to intervene in Gary’s family affairs.
Yet Gary continues to seek out Joe’s help, recognizing in his boss what movie fans have recognized in Cage since “Valley Girl” – that combination of passion and compassion that sometimes comes out sideways but almost always is there. Here, it’s both more evident and more modulated than in most Cage films, with Cage toning down his natural quirkiness as well his wild-eyed tendencies.
The more mixed news for Cage is that Joe is the least developed of the three main characters. He’s written, by Gary Hawkins from a book by Larry Brown, as a mystery figure. Details of Joe’s past, apart from his prison stay, are alluded to but never filled in, and always by other characters, not Joe. Though this approach is interesting, Joe never becomes as vivid a character as Gary or Wade.
Nor is Cage’s comeback as impressive as director David Gordon Green’s. “Joe” returns Green (“All the Real Girls”) to artful indie form after a detour into good (“Pineapple Express”) and then mediocre Hollywood comedies (“The Sitter”). In “Joe,” Green ably interweaves beautiful shot composition and performances by professional and untried actors for a film that’s polished but also naturalistic.
Casting non-actors always is a gamble, because they can appear stiff on screen. But the acting newcomers in “Joe” infuse the film with an authenticity it might have lacked otherwise.
Joe’s fictional work crew – who kill weak trees with poison, to make way for stronger trees – is composed mainly of real life-day laborers from in and around Austin, Texas, where “Joe” was shot. Their everyday banter during work scenes sounds unforced and unscripted. When they incorporate Joe in their jokes, they help sell the idea of Cage as a blue-collar man.
In the significant role of Wade, Green cast Poulter, a real-life homeless man who died not long after filming ended. Poulter brings an almost gentle undercurrent to Wade that keeps the man’s eruptions of violence surprising, no matter how often they occur.
No person is all bad, and Poulter shows (and director of photography Tim Orr highlights in magic-hour, slow-motion shots) Wade has a fun-loving streak. Prone to little dances in the street, Gary’s father sometimes reaches just the right spot in his daily alcohol intake where he’s almost charming.
Gary, desperate for his any good interactions with his father, will engage Wade when he knows he is in a good mood. Sheridan combines a beyond-his-years maturity with youthful, searching vulnerability, qualities that let him move easily from sharing scenes with movie stars McConaughey and Cage to interacting with a newcomer like Poulter.
Wade refuses to work, beats his son and steals the teen’s pay. The boy is trying to earn money for groceries for his bedraggled mother and sister, who are squatting, with Wade and Gary, in a condemned house.
The condemned house, the heavily symbolic tree-poisoning that’s a metaphor for Gary’s family tree – “Joe” lays it on thick and then thicker. Joe visits a rural brothel with a kitchen illuminated by red light and a house where Joe’s friends butcher an animal in the dining room. The hip South by Southwest Austin exists nowhere in the range of Green’s often lurid rural Texas.
Yet with the exception of a criminal character (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who comes from the same scarred-Southern-creep handbook “True Detective” consulted, no character in “Joe” seems so heightened he or she could not exist in real life.
If only we knew the movie’s title character a little better. But maybe being left wondering is another victory for Cage. When was the last time you were intrigued by a Cage character?