Joe (2013) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content
Running Time: 118 min.

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Aj Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenplay: Gary Hawkins (based on the novel by Larry Brown)

Review published April 15, 2014

While it may pale somewhat in comparison to another independent film with a title that is monosyllabic nickname for coffee, Mud, Joe still ultimately emerges as a fine, lesser companion piece than a just a simple variation of the same thing. Both are films by respected indie directors raised in Arkansas, both are set in the south (Mississippi here), both have a ne'er-do-well antihero role model for a teen boy coming of age.  In both films, that boy is played by Tye Sheridan, while the antihero is played by a once-respected actor in search of righting his career back to a respectable path. Joe is the darker of the two, as director David Gordon Green (Your Highness, Undertow) makes a 180-degree turn from the light mirth of Prince Avalanche to explore the cycle of abuse that exists among the residents of a small rural town.

Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, Trespass) plays the titular character, an ex-con who has managed to turn his life around, despite his tendencies toward a violent temper and antisocial behavior. His day job consists of supervising the poisoning of trees on a vast property in which the owner would rather grow pines. It is there that he's approached by a 15-year-old boy named Gary (Sheridan), who is looking for work, willing to pretty much do anything required of him to put money in his pocket and, hopefully, give him a bit of freedom to get away from his physically abusive alcoholic stepfather, Wade (Hawkins, who died shortly after filming). Through their association, Gary and Joe form a unique bond of friendship and mentorship, but forces within the town are bubbling up to threaten to swallow both into oblivion.

Much of the kudos for Joe's critical success will no doubt go to Cage for giving his most respectable, subdued dramatic turn in many years. As decent as the performance is in a vacuum, I might not agree that he is the right person for the role, as he is the only member of the cast that seems like he isn't actually from the town he's supposed to reside in. In other words, he detracts more than he adds, even if he isn't giving a bad performance. 

Cage may benefit from low expectations here, but he does give us enough of a turn to want to see more of this and less of the b-movies he regularly appears in for a paycheck. It's interesting to note that, just as Joe has to hold back his homicidal tendencies, so too does Cage, the actor, have to reel in from his trademark over-the-top performance. Meanwhile, Sheridan is now three-for-three when it comes to truly impressing as an up-and-coming young actor who can command the screen, even if he's playing the same basic role underneath.

For as much as there is to admire in David Gordon Green's work, there is also the unevenness that has permeated much of his output over the years. The leisurely pace at times isn't really the problem, as that is Green's distinctive style his fans adore him for. As Green tends to prefer character beats over plot and story, it's mostly how he deals with the narrative arcs that feel like they could use more structure, as the film only occasionally coalesces into something of substance, only to have the themes dissipate at the time of the next scene.  That, and you can sense where things are headed once the characters and their respective roles are introduced.

Joe will likely meet well with fans of Green's less commercial work, as well as those who've been eagerly anticipating Nicolas Cage to come back into the fold of quality actors again.  While it's more likely to be forgotten than to become a cult classic, it's an interesting and provocative character study of a town without much for its inhabitants to look forward to except to, like the trees, tear down the old and useless for a chance at a stronger new life.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo