Just when you think that Nicolas Cage has devolved into the internet meme that his assault of terrible films and hair pieces encourage; David Gordon Green's spectacular direction and Gary Hawkins small but potent screenplay extract a shockingly impressive performance as a man on the edge of self-destruction.
Joe (Cage) is an ex-con and tree poisoner by trade, haunted by anti-authoritarian impulse and a hair trigger temper, is trying in vain to live out a peaceful existence. When Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his essentially homeless family (including his father Wade played by Gary Poulter) wander into town Joe takes the young man under his wing to elevate him from the hard life that he can see coming.
Green's direction is captivating. The opening scene is a gambit to the audience. Sheridan's Gary is sitting alongside his dishevelled father Wade a.k.a. G-Daawg (Poulter) laying down harsh truths. Staring into the distance on a deserted train tracks, the camera stoically observes, not allowing you to get any respite from Gary telling his father that he's responsible for the family's problems. It's from this perch that Wade's passive drunkard shows his menace. Callously striking at Gary, he jolts and sways to his feet and walks up an embankment. In silhouette you see a couple of heavies emerge and beat the living snot out of him. Green shadows Gary, you're almost always in a documentary styled passenger seat watching him learn and observe. Joe is judged by the camera. We watch his loneliness, the routine, the poses and postures in different situations to see that this is man with very different public and private personas. The grinding pulse of Jeff Mcilwain and David Wingo creates an atmosphere of tension throughout Joe; it blankets the proceedings without being pervasive.
Hawkins adaptation of Larry Brown's novel is a wonderful slow burn. It's as if the forces of natural lit in the beginning of the film by Joe and Gary swell like storm fronts until they unify and crash. Hawkins has a great handle on natural dialogue especially with the scenes of Joe's work crew led by Brian Mays' Junior, in his first role.
Cage's Joe seems to be constantly boxing up or self medicating (with alcohol) an uncontrollable rage. The phrase "don't poke the bear," comes to mind when you see Ronnie Gene Blevins' Willie-Russell assault and antagonise Joe and the fireworks start. The darkness is frightening and Cage shows it trembling through Joe like an earthquake is being unleashed from his core and he's trying to stabilise the aftershocks. There's also a hope that blooms the moment he meet's Sherdian's Gary.
Sheridan is an emerging powerhouse. He's able to pair a youthful exuberance and emotional immaturity with an almost sage like wisdom of a kid that's had it really tough. Spite is a powerful motivator and his father's failure spurs him on. He's had to grow in presence, if not stature, to protect his sister Dorothy and mother from the violence and exploitation of his father.
Adriene Mishler's Connie comes back into Joe's life desperate to cement their on and off relationship into something more permanent. Mishler's both a humanising element for Joe's often distant solitude in the confines of his small home, and a sad reminder that this is a broken man, out of touch with his emotions. Mishler's sexy and calming Connie is soothing but dwarfed in stature by Cage and Sheridan. Poulter's Wade is frightening because of how he keeps you off balance. When he's at the depths of his intoxication his age and frailty make him seem innocent. It's under that guise that the sociopathic hyena is revealed, scavenging his way through life at everyone else's expense.
Powerhouse performances from Cage and Sheridan and Green's engaging direction assure Joe is a film that will rattle around in your mind for days.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Gordon Green Written by: Gary Hawkins (based on the novel by Larry Brown) Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Aj Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock
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