The cinematic landscape is crowded with stories of redemption, of characters who have strayed and whose past weighs them down on their forward journey. These are characters who are not necessary conscious of their redemptive quest; rather, they are guided by the ever manipulative pen of the writer, and if consciously aware they are often thwarted by either their own stubborn natures or narrative events—more often a combination of the two. Joe (Nicolas Cage) yet another man in this cinematic heritage, but he is one who is consciously aware of the road walked and the road that lies ahead.
Joe tells the story of an ex-con who inadvertently becomes a father figure to Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15 year old adolescent who comes to him seeking work. If the cinematic landscape is crowded with characters that bring with them the shadow of redemption, then the father-son relationship is equally prevalent, and so director David Gordon Green and writer Gary Hawkins combine the discovery of the familial with the metaphorical personal road movie to shape their drama which sits as a chapter at opposite ends of the lives of one man and one boy.
One moment in particular, in which which man and boy encounter one another for the first time, pays its respects to the fact that life is made up of moments that are threaded together, in which some are more significant than others. It is a quietly explosive moment, but it is the point at which a familiar cinematic or even narrative journey gets underway.
Joe is in many ways a simple tale, a reminder that in simplistic and familiar narratives there is reliance upon character and performance to anchor the drama. But such an assertion does a disservice to Green’s direction, as it is with a simple and invisible hand that he directs his film, in which style and flare slips into the background to hand the film as a stage to the performers.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to look beyond Joe as an actor’s film, one that shows Cage’s worth as an actor that complimentarily offsets his star persona. Joe represents for Cage an opportunity to play a character which is in the starry gaze of most actors, and our privilege as an audience is the opportunity to witness the immersion of the actor in the role, wherein we are invited to follow a singular chapter in a character’s onscreen fictional life.
Joe is closer to the Leaving Las Vegas end of the spectrum of Cage’s oeuvre which spans outlandish star turns of ferociously fevered performances with the more quiet and internal angst fuelled performances. Here Cage may have turned in one of his most accomplished performances to date. Of course, he has proven that he can play the tragic figure, yet here he captivates with his simmering temperament; a look in the eye that allows him to limit his explosive tendencies to a few well timed moments that punctuate him as a no-nonsense type of guy who is forever trying to sustain a tranquillity in his everyday misery.
A slow moving and assured piece of filmmaking, the terms coming of age, rites of passage or tale of redemption are all apt to describe Joe. But look a little deeper and one sees shades of Faust, Christ’s temptation in the desert, and the folklores of malevolent forces that centre on the temptation to choose the wrong path, and the deceitful attempts to acquire a soul. At its heart, Joe depicts the battle for one boy’s soul, a war waged between the flawed protagonist (Joe), and the antagonistic characters that seek to plunder the innocence of childhood and leave destruction in their path.
Joe is not the pure cut cinematic anti-hero; instead, his flawed nature has a more realistic feel of a fair and honest man who will do right by people. He does acknowledge that he can be a mean individual, although as the film unfolds the suspicion arises that his idealism has been the harbinger of bad fortune. Joe is a character born out of his time, wherein he is more suited to the frontier life where individual responsibility without a reliance on law and order was more prominent. But it is the balance of this quiet, withdrawn and yet simmering character that captivates and taps into the point of the film as one of how people can drift in one direction or another, to either darken or lighten those shades of grey. The relationship between Joe and Gary enhances this idea, to suggest that in the shadow of bad men the innocent need to be steered towards lightening the inherent moral grey shades that we all possess, and which evolves within us as we mature through the experiences distinguished of life distinguished by happiness and suffering.
The fact Joe ends where it starts attributes it to the events of the film being a step in this one adolescent’s life and his encounter with both angels and demons; good men, flawed men and evil men. It is a step that will see him walk head long into the future either looking back to the past in search of redemption or he will stride forward and transcend his adolescent beginnings. The stylized moments that bookend the film are symbolic of the significance of this one step and the importance of those fellow travellers we meet on life’s highway; some of whom are angels and some of whom are demons.
Joe is a film that transcends ratings or critical designations. It neither feels remarkable or unremarkable, and yet by its conclusion it holds the power to touch your sensibilities. Green and company have here performed a seductively subtle act.