American independent director David Gordon Green’s first three films, George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow, were each deeply rooted in the poetic realism of classic American storytelling. Adept at presenting marginalised characters and imbuing their hopes and dreams with the bewitching atmosphere of their rural surroundings, Green was soon heralded as the heir to Terrence Malick. Fast forward ten years and Green is now best known as a purveyor of stoner comedies. However, with Joe (2013), his heavily allegorical tale about a young boy’s coming of age through the redemptive exploits of an ex-con, it looks like Green is back on track.
A pensive autopsy of the flawed male psyche, the film plays out amongst the arid landscape of rural Texas, in a town were money is tight and finding work even tighter. Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a simple man of simple pleasures. Abrupt and hot-tempered, Joe works hard and drinks even harder, living a life he’s desperately trying to forget. Then, one warm spring morning he unknowingly crosses paths with his salvation, a young boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary has his own problems, namely an abusive farther who haunts the film like a demon lurking in plain sight. Joe takes Gary under his wing but discovers one good dead doesn’t necessarily wash away all of the bad, soon realising that redemption necessitates liberating yourself from more than just the demons of your past.
A muted character study shrouded in an atmosphere of economic depression, Joe succinctly mirrors America’s economic malaise and social inequality through a portrait of the toothless state of masculinity. The partnership of Cage and Sheridan is by far the film’s strongest asset. Cage’s reputation for random outbursts of insanity adds a sustained degree of tension to an otherwise subdued performance. Though there’s a sense that Cage’s character has been constructed with his public image in mind, Joe stays grounded thanks to the on-screen chemistry he shares with Sheridan. Their relationship is built upon classic father-son tropes, with Cage’s jittery alcoholic and Sheridan’s awkward teen an endearing partnership – one retreating within his skin, the other almost bursting out of it.
What at first feel like a beautiful throwback to Green’s earlier work soon reveals itself as a rather pale imitation. A reliance on clumsy narrative clichés and the transparent deployment of symbolism fail to add gravitas to a film that would benefit from a narrower focus. This is perhaps most apparent in the unnecessary introduction of a second antagonist – a local greaseball whose facial scars tell you all you need to know. Gary’s abusive father, a feeble, repugnant old man whose decrepit figure belies his malevolence, is more than enough evil for any film, his presence an unavoidable metaphor for the malignant cancer that’s rotting the core of society. Gary’s father represents not only the symptomatic hopelessness of America’s wealth divide; he’s also a fitting representation of the vilification, which perpetuates class inequality.
The addition of a pantomime villain demonstrates a lack of confidence and wastes valuable screen time that could have been better utilised giving some agency to the film’s thinly-drawn female characters. Comparisons have understandably been made with Jeff Nichols’ Matthew McConaughey-starring Mud (2012). However, whilst Nichols is a director honing his voice, Green looks like he’s trying too hard to recreate the indistinct beauty of his earlier work. Though there’s enough in Joe to give the impression that Green isn’t far from reviving his aptitude for capturing the rural poetics of the Deep South, his latest endeavour still falls just short of his own past high standards.
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