It’s always heartening to witness a triumphant return to filmmaking form, and David Gordon Green’s Joe (2013) represents something of a double whammy. The American director’s strong grasp of character and setting was evident in his other feature from last year, Prince Avalanche (2013), but Joe sees Green masterfully back on top form. The second delight here is the casting of Nicolas Cage in the titular role. Green manages to draw out his best performance in years. He’s much more grounded and less theatrical than his show-stopping turn in Werner Herzog’s The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009), and it chimes perfectly with the oppressive and foreboding tone of this alluring slice of Southern Gothic.
The feeling of decay and malaise is evident early on as Joe (Cage) manages his team of woodland workers who are tasked with poisoning a whole forest of trees in an area due for redevelopment. Living in the kind of unruly place where a bar-room brawl results in a shotgun retaliation attack, Joe does his utmost to keep his coiled-up rage in check, having spent numerous stints in the penitentiary. However, his hardened drinking does little to alleviate the situation. Into his life steps 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, whose previous credits include Jeff Nichols’ Mud and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life), a young man seeking employment and an escape from a destructive family life. A bond quickly develops between the pair, but various ill forces in their lives conspire against the two forging a lasting, untroubled friendship.
Like his earlier work, Green strives for authenticity throughout, populating the cast with the number of non-professional actors. He also shows an uncanny knack for drawing out some truly unforgettable performances, not least from the late Gary Poulter, an actual homeless man plucked off the streets, who is truly remarkable as Gary’s drunken sociopathic father, Wade. Cage is wholly believable amongst those untrained players, and it’s difficult to reconcile his work here with those mannered B-movie turns which have increasingly become commonplace in his career (the forceful dressing down he gives to a police officer on his trail is primal, vintage Cage). Sheridan makes good on his potential and is similarly excellent, imbuing Gary with a stoic resolve gained from being thrust into an adult world at an early age. Undoubtedly one of the year’s better State-side offerings, Joe will hopefully find a large, appreciative audience on the small screen, something it was denied during its rather muted cinema release.
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