Whatever motivates Nicolas Cage to appear in terrible movies — financial considerations, bad judgement, an unwillingness to pass on a script — there is no doubting that his résumé boasts an especially large number of turkeys to go alongside his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas. Sure, he’s headlined the occasional crowd-pleasing blockbuster (Con Air, National Treasure, The Rock) but, for the most part, a series of outright disasters litter the record.
From Bangkok Dangerous to Drive Angry, his presence above the title long ago became a helpful guide, used by casual cinemagoers deciding on what not to see. It has all been rather unseemly for this member of the Coppola clan.
Thank goodness then for Tye Sheridan. In David Gordon Green’s Joe, this gifted young actor weaves a similarly earthy spell to the one he exhibited in 2012’s Mud. It was there that Sheridan backed up the career renaissance of the once doomed Matthew McConaughey. The latter man now boasts an Academy Award for Dallas Buyer’s Club and it is reasonable to argue that Cage, too, has been rescued from life in the filmic wilderness. Sheridan’s contribution cannot be underestimated.
Green has swum in these dark southern waters before, courtesy of 2004’s Georgia-based thriller Undertow, and, alongside screenwriter Gary Hawkins, he returns to these quasi-indie roots following his forays into the low-brow stoner-comedy genre with Pineapple Express and Your Highness. An adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, Joe certainly exists within the same evocative tapestry as Mud: that of a rusted, dilapidated South. For Arkansas, read Texas; hot dust replaces sweltering grime.
As Mud’s lowly denizens subsisted on the offerings of the mighty Mississippi River, the instant blue-collar occupation — what little employment there is in this bankrupt locale — comes from the vast swathes of dark forest as Joe (Cage) and his crew of good-natured labourers poison trees marked for replacement by fresh saplings.
Into this world enters Sheridan’s Gary, the teenage son of an itinerant family. The boy is tough and stoic, willing to work and unafraid to stand up for himself. Yet, he desperately needs love and some measure of stability given the fact that his father (Gary Poulter) is a drunken brute.
In many ways, Gary is like Mud’s Ellis, but it is to Sheridan's credit that this is no simple rehash. This time he is sturdier, more worldly, a boy who knows how dreadful life can be yet refuses to be cowed by it. They are qualities which Joe appreciates and, seeing something of himself in the youngster, perhaps, he quickly takes Gary under his wing.
The interplay between the two is subtly affecting. Not exactly father and son, they are simply friends, equals. When events conspire against his protégé, it is up to Joe to offer his protection and ensure Gary’s upward curve.
The title role here is a fascinating creation. A man who has certainly done terrible things in the past, Joe’s restraint serves as his truest asset, despite the well of anger and pain simmering beneath his mostly controlled visage. Cage is at his best therefore when straining to keep it all in check. Grimacing and in obvious emotional turmoil, this is far from the gratuitously crazed caricature which has come to define the grizzled A-lister.
Instead, the intermittent tics and eye-bulging rage are considered, rendering him infinitely more compelling. Joe is a seriously disturbed guy and, for all his necessary self-control, he exists in a demented world away from the steady, simple calm of his woodland realm.
Hardly a choirboy, he veers drunkenly from one white-trash setting to another, an unspeakably seedy brothel here, a deranged kitchen-cum-abattoir there. At one point Joe sets his American bulldog on a fierce Alsatian that he has a particular dislike for, petting the animal later on as she licks blood from her own face. Furthermore, a running feud — based on a relatively minor slight — with local scumbag Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) quickly escalates to an alarmingly bloodthirsty degree. In truth, whether through accident or design, the hectic environment he uses to occupy his mind seems destined to relight the touchpaper.
Cage leads an excellent cast with more than one non-professional lending hardbitten naturalism to their roles. Sheridan stands out as generational talent but it is Poulter as his vile paterfamilias who steals the shown, even from its leading player.
Poulter’s story is an interesting one. A homeless alcoholic with no professional acting experience, he was plucked off the streets of Austin by Green to take up the role of Wade. He oozes a terrible charisma as a degenerate of rare vintage, a work-shy, mumbling wastrel possessed of not a single positive feature. Notably, this lack of goodness fails to ring false, for history is littered with irredeemably horrible people and, in this respect, Wade is a villain like few others.
His actions spiral from unrepentantly avaricious to brutal. His pursuit of the next drink is all that motivates him and it is his depravity that sets the bloody final events in motion, unlocking the gothic sensibilities that Green has hinted at throughout. Poulter died in February 2013 but his haggard performance represents a fine legacy and a single shining example of bottled magic.
As powerful and authentic as it is, the film does not lack flaws. Reflecting the present style with these gritty modern noirs, the plot is somewhat fleeting. Few narrative sign posts are offered to fill in the gaps as the audience is, essentially, dropped into an ongoing tale. The opening scene is undeniably accomplished — a single take in which Gary and his father exchange words and blows beside a desolate train track — but as Wade is set upon and beaten, for reasons unknown, by a pair of faceless men, a sense of disconnect is established. It has the whiff of significance without any of the context.
Joe is a colourful figure but there is much left unexplained about him, save for vague references to his past deeds. When he and an unnamed woman observe each other with intense familiarity at a red light, no words passing between them, one is left to wonder about the nature and identity of all those he has wounded in the past.
Indeed, compared with the vigour of the central trio, the figures surrounding them are either poorly developed or entirely ancillary. More than one character appears from nowhere, free of any explanation as to who they are or why they are there. The ultimate effect is slightly jarring, if not wholly irritating.
Place such matters aside, however, and this becomes a rewarding affair. In the muscularly conveyed themes of friendship and loyalty, Green and Cage relocate paths they have strayed from, each embracing the drama offered up, bending it to their will. Even as death and sexual violence flood the screen, Joe stubbornly holds its shape, a notable contrast with its own decaying landscapes.
An edited version of this article was first published here.