(USA, 113 min.)
Dir. David Gordon Green, Writ. Gary Hawkins
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Blevins,
Nic Cage craziness is a phenomenon unto itself. Cage has always been a weird dude, but his body of work in the last decade is especially peculiar. Recently, though, his performances and star persona have come together in a bizarre novelty akin to the Joker’s query about dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight. The man who played a brooding werewolf in Moonstruck is now howling at the moon.
Cage, following a stint of Oscar-calibre serious work in films like Adaptation and Matchstick Men, seems to have sniffed some sort of cinematic glue and gone full-tilt crazy in deranged turkeys like Knowing, The Wicker Man, and Drive Angry. Sometimes it feels as if Cage is in on the joke (see: Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans) and sometimes it feels as if Cage himself is the joke (see: the TIFF Gala Trespass). Whatever star was once Nic Cage is now a full-fledged persona, but the Cage in Joe seems to embrace fully the strangeness of the recent turn in his career. Cage, rather than accept defeat, takes the madness for which audiences increasingly embrace him and his fascinating performance in Joe transforms the full-fledged weirdness of his persona into a subtly powerful performance. Joe is Nic Cage craziness at its very best.
Cage stars in the title role as Joe, the leader of a Texan “tree-poisoning” crew, and his take on the rough South is something worthy of Deliverance. Joe puts Cage in the backcountry as Joe plays mentor to a young boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan of Mud and Tree of Life fame) while precipitating the end of his own death wish. Joe is a reckless and uncouth radical that Joe counterpoints with Gary’s own twisted, grimy, dead-beat dad (Gary Poulter). Both men are a kind of walking dead, but Joe at least sets Gary on a straight path by helping him and teaching him to fend for himself while Gary’s own father simply roams about the small town in a mess of drunken disorderly violence in search of free booze. It says a lot about a man’s character when Cage plays the saner of two parties.
Director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) places Joe in strange part of backcountry Texas that makes the depression of the Deep South part of his menacing charisma. The atmosphere is just as powerful as Cage’s performance is, and the strikingly scuzzy town (shot by DP Tim Orr with an unnerving way of capturing the natural light) feels like the perfect hotbed to breed this weird performance. The film is peppered with droll cusses and dense vernacular as Green uses a mix of professionals and non-professional locals to populate the film with near-unintelligible dialogue and white trash flavour.
Joe exists in a menacing world in which poverty and violence feel like part of the natural setting, and shooting a man with a rifle plays out as commonplace an action as butchering a deer in the kitchen. Joe, on the other hand, lives in a lawless place where sturdy bulldogs maul one another to death while their owners frequent the local whorehouse and where drinking and driving (with a minor) is a neighbourly affair. Joe is uncomfortably familiar thanks to the realism and grit of Green’s direction, yet it’s uncannily tongue-in-cheek with the off-kilter energy that propels the film to its dark and violent finale.
Green and Cage harness the craziness of Joe to make the title character a kind of gothic figure with a mythic power. Cage, sporting a grizzly beard, a Southern drawl, and an intimidating mass of muscles and tattoos, has a mean, commanding presence. Joe is a man marked, haggard, and warped by rough experience. He has done time in jail and, for reasons unknown, he is intent on going back. Cage’s bipolar incarnation of the man presents a Joe who is subdued and paternal, inquisitive and worldly, yet equally volatile and driven by streaks of self-possessing good-for-nothing meanness. He’s just as crazy as the father from which he protects Gary.
Sheridan, alternatively, gives another notable turn and proves that he is indeed one of the stronger young actors working today. In a role similar to his lead in Mud, Sheridan plays Gary as a conflicted boy coming-of-age with the help of an unconventional father figure. Sheridan plays Gary as strong and resilient, but equally prone to youthful directionless and dangerous naïveté. His rapport with Cage is just as impressive as his onscreen work with Matthew McConaughey in Mud, which perhaps suggests that this young star offers a secret ingredient in aiding fallen stars see an upswing. Cage brings his innate craziness to its peak with Joe, so perhaps he’s on the up-and-up with a McConnaissance of his own.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)
Joe screens in Ottawa at The Mayfair until Thursday, May 29.