PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Nicolas Cage Is Jolted Back to Life in 'Joe'

Nicolas Cage jolts back to life for David Gordon Green's Joe, a Southern thriller and character study that asks more of him than grimacing or wigging out.


Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Aj Wilson McPhaul
Rated: R
Year: 2013
US date: 2014-04-11 (Limited release)
UK date: 2014-07-24 (General release)

Nicolas Cage has been in the movie-star wilderness for so long that his bills-paying sojourn into shlock can be divided into at least a couple of phases, including the supernatural hokum phase (The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) and the joyless urban thriller phase (Trespass, Seeking Justice, Stolen). In a few of these movies and in outliers like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans or even Kick-Ass, he makes electric, unflagging commitments to his roles. That used to be his performance trademark in almost every movie he made, good or bad. For the last few years, though, he's appeared asleep at the wheel.

Cage jolts back to life for David Gordon Green's Joe, a Southern thriller and character study that asks more of him than grimacing or wigging out. He plays the title character, the head of a tree-poisoning operation in a small Mississippi town. It's probably not quite legal, but it passes for legitimate work: a lumber company pays Joe to poison trees in a forest so they can be removed and replaced with more lucrative pines. Joe's crew consists mostly of African American men, weary and hopeless. But then he hires 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), based on his eagerness to work.

A bond forms between Gary and Joe, and it's one not unlike the subjects of countless coming-of-age novels and films. Those stories are often told from the kid's point of view, and while both Gary and Joe carry their own scenes, this movie tends to favor the vantage of the adult mentor. We learn that Joe has been to prison, and despite cordial relationships with his sorta-employees and other townsfolk, he has a violent temper, usually ignited by perceived injustice but rarely used to productive ends. He obviously sees himself in the hardworking, hardscrabble Gary.

Gary has a family of his own, but no one he can rely on, least of all his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter). The movie opens on a fixed take of Gary and Wade sitting by railroad tracks as Gary tries to get through to his belligerent father -- until Wade tires of listening, and hits him in the face, ending the shot. In other words: Joe's drinking, smoking, temper, and occasional whore-mongering make him look like a near-model citizen next to Wade, who can barely keep himself upright, and does no good when he manages to complete that meager task.

The abusive no-good father is another staple of Southern coming-of-age stories, but Green sidesteps cliché by casting Poulter, a homeless non-actor with a ravaged face and an eccentric energy (in one scene, he demonstrates pop-and-lock dances moves for his son) that disguise his menace. Wade looks harmless, even slight, but his unyielding stubbornness eventually turns frightening and destructive. Poulter gives a remarkable performance, making it all the more tragic that the performer, who struggled with addiction for most of his life, died in 2013, two months after the film wrapped. It's understandable, then, that Green sometimes lets Poulter's scenes play a little too long.

This attention to Poulter doesn't pull focus from Sheridan and Cage, though; their performances are just as strong and truthful. Cage and Green appear to share an abiding appreciation of high art, low culture, and the ways they can intersect. Green had his own supposed sojourn from his artistic calling, directing broader studio comedies like Your Highness that, like Cage's better action roles, explore different aspects of his personality under the guise of mainstream pandering. Joe marks his second forest-work movie in a row, after returning to the indie world with Prince Avalanche.

Green's experience with broad comedy and heavy drama, sometimes in the same film, leaves him well equipped to guide Cage's most dynamic performance in years. Pain lingers underneath Joe's imposing exterior, and moments of heartbreaking tenderness and warmth break through (enhanced visually by some lovely compositions, like the slow fade from an overhead shot of Joe and his sorta-girlfriend in bed together to a pan over Joe in his beloved truck). Cage is also loose and funny here: an extended sequence where Joe and Gary get drunk and look for Joe's lost dog offers hilarious conversational riffs, reportedly the result of on-set improvisation. Scenes like this don't further the plot, but rather, ensure that the time Joe spends with Joe and Gary, together or apart, feels lived-in, never perfunctory. Cage allows himself some movie-star flourishes, elevating Joe's badassery to tall-tale levels, but maintains a certain naturalism, a surprising development for such a heightened performer.

Green, too, mixes naturalism with stylization. He's looked to the South before in movies like George Washington and Undertow, through the lens of cinematographer Tim Orr, and Joe shares their sun-dappled-junkyard aesthetic. In this darker version of Green's South, threats of violence linger everywhere, in snakes, machetes, guns in drawers, scarred faces. Yet despite the foreshadowing, the violence is still jarring when it comes, bits of punctuation to the movie's odd dialogue digressions (another Green trademark), like a store clerk talking about how he spends his money on diabetes research and World War II paraphernalia.

For all the welcome idiosyncrasies, Joe's plot proceeds more or less within a generic framework, with good guys, bad guys, and a family in trouble. Even so, the movie creates its own kind of original concept, and for two hours, Cage's bad-thriller past doesn't catch up with him.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.