Written by Gary Hawkins
Directed by David Gordon Green
Despite his early filmography making him a critical favourite and causing film lovers to sing his praises, David Gordon Green’s recent ventures have moved sharply away from such films. The same can be said of Nicolas Cage, who has unfortunately been rendered something of a punchline by his recent performances, with few remembering his memorable turns in features like Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. However, both make a return to their career roots through working together for the first time in Joe, and both manage to show what made them so well-acclaimed in the first place in this compelling drama.
The movie does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of an isolated place, particularly with the cinematography. A feeling of entrapment, and of a detachment from the world at large, is conveyed wonderfully, and adds an air of frightening authenticity to the proceedings. There is also a strong sense of being left behind by time that lingers throughout the movie, adding another layer to the character decisions and subsequent consequences.
The performances in the movie are also a highlight. As the titular ex-con and tree poisoning business owner Joe, Nicolas Cage turns in a great performance that stands as a powerful reminder of his acting prowess, as his understated yet multi-faceted performance carries the film. However, holding his own with Cage and announcing himself as someone to look out for is Tye Sheridan, who plays Gary Jones, the neglected teen who forms a bond with Joe. With a resume that already includes working with Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, Sheridan establishes his considerable talents once more, managing to convey the anger and desperation of his character in a heartbreakingly genuine manner that never once rings false, and very nearly assures he will be a major presence before long.
Overall, this is an excellent movie that manages to effectively tackle major themes and illustrate character parallels without beating the audience over the head, yet leaves the viewer thinking long after the movie has ended. Despite the bleakness of the overall story, one of working class struggle and despair in the South, the film manages to have effective moments of levity as well that prevent it from becoming overwhelming, and it never drags at any point, earning its two-hour run-time. The actions of the major characters never feel at odds with what the film has established regarding their personalities, and the movie is another compelling entry into David Gordon Green’s dramatic oeuvre, and particularly worth seeing for people who may have written off Cage. Hopefully a wider audience gets a chance to do so sooner rather than later.
– Deepayan Sengupta
David Gordon Green’s return to the South in Joe represents the director’s oddest and most violent yarn to date. Teaming with Nicholas Cage and the supremely young and talented Tye Sheridan (Mud, The Tree of Life), Gordon Green crafts a thorny and vile tale of fathers, sons, friendship, and redemption. Mostly functioning as a spiritual relative to the director’s 2004 film Undertow, Joe finds its director backtracking through coming-of-age tropes and jarring portraits of violence. Though it’s at times tonally scattered, Joe manages to leave a lasting mark despite registering as a middling retread in Gordon Green’s filmography.
Nicholas Cage plays Joe Ransom, an ex-con, chain-smoking alcoholic who develops a friendship with the 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), a hard-working and self-sufficient drifter, who along with his family, moves into Joe’s Texas town to squat for a while. Joe works as the head of a day laboring crew and decides to hire Gary; as a result, the two develop a friendship that spawns an unfortunate cycle of inevitable violence. While the setup is routinely agreeable and rather slight, Joe seems to resonate most as an unlikely buddy film. Joe and Gary are very much two sides of the same coin, each saddled with unfortunate baggage and really nowhere else to turn.
Some will inevitably compare Joe to Jeff Nichols’ Mud from last year, and while the comparison is thematically apt, Joe also shares some similarities with William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, mostly in part to how peculiar and vile the proceedings become. Gordon Green serves up his strangest batch of images yet, letting go of his lyrical gaze and focusing more on the ravaged sum of Joe and Gary’s misfortune. As Gary aches to escape from the grasp of his drunken and disparaging father Wade (Gary Poulter), Joe attempts to dodge a lowlife nuisance (Ronnie Gene Blevins) walking about town seeking revenge for a past episode between the two. Each of the conflicts eventually escalates and intertwines, resulting in a last act that somehow works despite its foreseeable and inevitable nature.
Despite being so surprisingly nasty, Joe is also pretty funny. Gordon Green’s penchant for working with untrained actors again shines through here. While Gary Poulter steals most of the film, there are countless scenes of authentic and natural camaraderie amongst Joe’s crew of tree poisoners. Cage’s performance starts off as rather restrained, but he predictably sheds the skin of a tormented loner by becoming a heavily volatile and protective role model. Cage’s turn here is easily his best work since appearing in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant. Tye Sheridan appears to be the real deal, maturely commanding and owning scenes like a long-standing veteran. His future is insanely bright and his chemistry with Cage is the film’s best asset.
Joe is an often problematic endeavor, one where the director is consciously chasing his own tail in attempt to tap into the success of his earlier films. If Prince Avalanche was a low-key return to form for Gordon Green, Joe is a full-blown genre-shifting mediation on character and region. It doesn’t always work, but the end result is rather tender and affecting.
— Ty Landis
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.