In the gritty southern drama Joe, Nicolas Cage delivers easily his most grounded and nuanced performance since Adaptation and easily one of the best of his career. The film also further marks the return of its director to smaller, quieter, and more powerful fare than what he’s been making lately. Cage and filmmaker David Gordon Green (who after going off to do Pineapple Express, The Sitter, and Your Highness went back to indie fare last year with this and the underrated Prince Avalanche) team up to tell a foreboding story of mentally and physically scarred individuals living and working within society’s margins and bearing their own set of norms. It’s a film of quiet, contemplative menace and a great deal of emotional weight.
A young drifter named Gary (Tye Sheridan, playing a darker variation of a character he did last year in Jeff Nichols’ Mud last year) rolls into a dead end rural town with his useless, violent, drunken father (homeless non-actor Gary Poulter, who sadly died in March 2013) and his ineffective mother. He’s only 15, but eager for hard work even though his dad can barely get up to get a bottle of liquor on his own. He’s hired by Joe Ransom (Cage), a logger who poisons old trees so new trees can be planted in his place. He runs a tight, no nonsense ship, but he takes a shine to Gary. A man with demons of his own, Joe sees Gary’s rough relationship with his pappy, but refuses to intervene at first. When they realize they have a common enemy in a dangerous local psycho (Ronnie Gene Blevins), Joe begins to open up and show his true nature, for better and for worse.
Green sets about setting up a pastoral and bucolic sense of place mixed with ominous portents and brutal realism that suggests the worst is yet to come for these people. Shot by frequent collaborator Tim Orr, the film looks remarkably stunning even when sometimes oddly lit ,much in the same fashion as Green’s earlier films All the Real Girls and George Washington. The musical score from David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain (again, two Green regulars) constantly suggests an impending sense of doom even when nothing’s happening. Green’s leisurely sense of pacing and desire to not go anywhere too fast with Larry Brown’s screenplay (based on a novel by Southern lit icon Gary Hawkins)
It’s a study of the nature of violent people, but not necessarily evil people. With the exception of Blevins’ deliriously unhinged scarred up psycho, no one here is beyond redemption. They’ve all just seemingly moved to the back country because no one else wants anything to do with them. They work hard to keep out of trouble, especially Joe. Even Gary’s loathsome father is still more of a tragic character than someone to be judged until a startling scene just past the film’s halfway point to underline the depths of his personal depravity and shame. Joe typifies the town itself, acting like a chaotic agent of normalcy. He’s the man no one wants to cross, and with good reason. Joe, for unspoken reason, might be the most dangerous person in town; a man who earns respect and not necessarily through fear, but through his capacity for control despite his temper, alcoholic tendencies, and a predilection for call girls.
There are some uniquely Cage-ian touches here and there (like Joe always listening to metalcore on his way to work or his sometimes amusing interactions with the men under his employ), but he dials back the kind of go-for-broke tendencies that have ruled his career as of late considerably. He works well opposite of Sheridan, creating a proper sympathetic mentor and teacher dynamic instead of a forced father and son trope. Wearing a wounded, almost constantly heartbroken expression, Cage plays Joe as a man trying to make the best of chronically bad situations. He can only roll with the punches because those blows are the only things still keeping him up.
It’s the best work from the film’s star and the film’s director in quite some time, and despite a conclusion that really feels a bit too much like how Mud ended last year (although vastly more realistically here), the film leaves a lasting impression. This is more in line with what Green and Cage should be doing. It’s a perfect blend of their more sensitive work with just enough tricks learned from bigger, grander productions. Let’s hope that Green can continue on this path at the very least. I somehow doubt Cage will follow suit, but at least he’s given us his one truly outstanding performance for the decade.