Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Watch Joe online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema / TalkTalk TV / iTunes
Click here to read our interview with Joe’s director, David Gordon Green.
“These trees are weak. Nobody wants them.”
That’s Joe (Cage) to Gary (Sheridan), whom he hires to help chop down a forest for replanting with a stronger species. The air hangs thick with melancholy, sweat and masculinity. And Joe hangs heaviest of them all, an old dog the other workers respect – and whose bark has been tamed into a whimper for fear of his bite being let loose.
Nic Cage is almost unrecognisable as the eponymous hothead – and not just because he is sporting his first ever on-screen beard. Joe is fuzzy on the outside but he’s spiky on the inside, an ex-con followed everywhere around the small town by old enemies (an unnerving Ronnie Gene Blevins) and the local police; whether to goad him into violence or contain him, it is never clear.
“Restraint,” he says to Gary. “It keeps me alive. Keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people.”
Gary Hawkins’ script, based on the novel by Larry Brown, is full of it, a terse drama of few words and even fewer outbursts. When they come, though, they hit hard.
Growing up in this world of muscly tension is Tye Sheridan’s teen. After his turn in the broadly similar Mud, the young actor plays his age, his timid presence a balance between naivety and anger. We first meet him sitting next to his old man, Wade, a drunkard who has no qualms with beating his boy. From this sedate scene, which erupts so suddenly into brutality, director David Gordon Green cuts to Joe lying awake in bed. For a moment, it feels like a flashback, until we realise it’s something more: a continuation.
Joe occupies that point between boyhood and manhood, a cycle perpetually caught between sunlit branches by David Gordon Green’s regular DoP Tim Orr. It has been painted by many as a return to the director’s indie roots after more mainstream work, such as Your Highness and The Sitter. But while there is the youthful focus of his early work (George Washington, All the Real Girls), coming-of-age has always been a preoccupation for Green, whether it’s Pineapple Express’s pot-smoking manchildren or Prince Avalanche’s existential limbo of Waiting for Godot.
Green’s other knack has been to work with non-professional actors – a trend that he continues here with the casting of Gary Poulter. The homeless driter with little of his own teeth may appear a natural fit for Gary’s wastrel of a father, but he steals the whole movie with a turn of astonishing depth. Oddly sympathetic despite being despicable, Poulter turns his villain into a man as capable of physical intimidation as he is of breakdancing and, in one improvised moment, kissing a victim on the head. Poulter passed away shortly after filming; a tragic loss of an undiscovered screen talent.
If Gary gives the movie its ominous, muggy atmosphere, Cage and Sheridan bring a more conventional heart. Together, their pseudo-father-son bonding turns the loop of male agression into something hopeful as well as sad, their quiet chemistry sincere enough to cancel out any role model cliches. In one scene late on, Joe teaches Gary how to appear tough but concerned when searching for a lost animal – how to smile through the pain. His mask of composure carries weight because of who’s wearing it; after so many outlandish, over-the-top roles, Nic Cage turns the wheel down from 11 to deliver a mature performance that ranks among the best of his career. The knowledge that at any second he could break out from beneath the calm surface makes the claustrophic Texan landscape ring with tension. A final act that recalls the movie’s tender opening moments confirms the moving truth behind Joe’s restrained power: it’s a dog eat dog world. And weak trees always make way for new ones.