Nicolas Cage’s name has been a real deterrent for me when it comes to movies over the past few years. I honestly actively avoid anything with his name attached. I can’t honestly say that, until ‘The Croods’ last year, I had not seen a Nicolas Cage film since ‘World Trade Center’ in 2006. In looking over his filmography, it looks like I didn’t miss much at all. Now, when ‘Joe’ was announced I was intrigued because of two things. First, David Gordon Green, while not a director I adore, has a pretty interesting filmography. He has a unique style of direction, earthy and honest, and he likes to build on very human themes. Second, and possibly more intriguing, was that it was staring (or co-staring) young Tye Sheridan. Now I had just seen ‘Mud’, where Sheridan completely stole the show and cemented himself as one to watch. I couldn’t wait to see him sink his teeth into something else.
But then there was Cage’s name at the top of the poster, and I hesitated.
I’m glad that the hesitation was brief, because while ‘Joe’ is not a perfect film, it is a very good one and offers Cage’s best performance since he won an Oscar, and one that completely strips him of every hammy, overbearing tick he has created as an actor and forces him to live outside of his persona and create something very intimate, very controlled and human.
But the film still belongs to Tye Sheridan.
‘Joe’, much like ‘Mud’, gives us a glimpse at life in the poor, destitute south. It also introduces us to families with real internal problems and lonesome men carrying baggage. In fact, ‘Joe’ feels an awful lot like ‘Mud’, just a little less focused. While the film itself is anchored by the two leads, the film’s splintered supporting characters either lack depth needed to make them feel important, or they tack on some clichéd depth that makes them feel unauthentic.
‘Joe’ tells us the story of two troubled individuals. First, you have Joe. Nearing 50, Joe has spent a decent amount of time behind bars and is forced to keep his head low and walk the other way for fear his drinking and his temper will get the better of him once again. Gary also has to learn to keep his head low, for fear that his alcoholic father won’t beat him for raising it. Gary, intent on taking care of his mother and sister, who have been neglected and abused by his wandering drunk of a father, takes up a job working for Joe. Joe takes a liking to Gary and finds himself invested in him and his life and working towards breaking him away from his father and helping him built his own stability. Sadly, the people in both of their lives (or the people that loiter around it) are intent on breaking both of them down.
For me, there are a few things that don’t work about ‘Joe’. First, Joe’s own relationship with the law feels a tad redundant and not fully fleshed out. He’s harassed by cops from time to time, and those scenes in particular feel unnecessary and distracting. Joe’s backstory needed a little more time too. We get fleeting mentions of his past, including children and grandchildren, but they are mentioned and then forgotten, and while this could be the point, it almost felt like an unnecessary diversion. My biggest issue though comes in the form of the film’s obligatory villain, Willie-Russell. We don’t see it, but apparently he got into it with Joe and so he hates him. Then he gets into it with Gary (we see that altercation) and so he hates him too. While this vendetta may work for the film’s finale (although it wasn’t entirely necessary) it is the character himself that doesn’t quite work. He just feels corny and ridiculous (especially his whole “I went through a windshield” line that he utters a few times). He’s just a dumb villain and with Gary’s father being the film’s chief antagonist, and a very successful one, I just can’t see why Willie-Russell wasn’t cut from the script.
Other than this though, I really liked this one a lot. The final few scenes brought this repulsive thrill factor (my stomach was on the floor) that brought the film somewhere instead of leaving it as an antii-climactic character study. But really, it is the performances by Cage and Sheridan that anchor this film. Gary Poulter (who was actually a real homeless man found by Green and offered the role) is also exceptional here. He’s truly convincing, to the point where I have a feeling he was pretty much playing an exaggerated version of himself. It’s a shame he died shortly after filming.
Cage, more reserved and internal than I’ve EVER seen him, is soulful and honest here, filling in the blanks left by the script and making Joe feel real from head to toe. His mannerisms are all expressive and yet never overwrought. He even handles his bigger, louder scenes with this depth I haven’t seen from him in years. But, this is Sheridan’s place to shine, and he does so with so much promise that I’m spellbound. He anchors this movie with such realism. He lives and breathes this character. The childish traits help establish an honest age that is prematurely aged by circumstance. You believe every outburst, every solemn retraction, every earnest plea. You can feel his trembling, his brooding, his observing and you can see every ounce of ‘performance’ leave him while he soaks in the atmosphere created by his character.
He’s one to watch, for sure!
So, I can say that despite my few reservations, I highly recommend ‘Joe’. It does feel like a copycat of sorts to ‘Mud’, carrying very similar themes and characters and atmosphere, and ‘Mud’ was better thought out overall, but ‘Joe’ does have its own personality that deserves your attention.
I give this a B. It has its clear flaws, but it really shines in other areas that make this well worth seeing. Oscar will probably pass entirely on this, but I'd love for some sort of critical revival of Sheridan in the Supporting Actor race. Who knows. We all though 'Mud' was going to be a no-show entirely with awards, and it managed to get mentions for McConaughey throughout the season. Granted, he was having one of those years, but you never know. That being said, I strongly feel that within the next five years, Sheridan will be an Oscar nominee, and within the next ten he'll be an Academy Award winner.