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.