Joe (David Gordon Green, 2014)
I saw Joe at the 2014 SXSW Festival, and found it both powerful and difficult to watch. It features a terrific lead performance by Nicolas Cage as a man at war with himself, an equally compelling supporting performance by up-and-comer Tye Sheridan (so engaging in Mud), and a riveting art-imitating-life performance by real-life homeless alcoholic Gary Poulter (who drowned in a lake before the film was released). They each represent three different points on the trajectory of male violence that David Gordon Green (George Washington, Pineapple Express) has chosen to examine in this, his ninth theatrical feature. From Sheridan – as a 15-year-old just learning the ropes of a life made rough by poverty, despair and addiction – to Poulter – as his ravaged, brutal father – there lies a clear and predetermined path, with Cage’s Joe at its midpoint. The film is about how these men’s lives intersect, and whether or not the journey is as foreordained as it originally seems.
Be prepared for scenes of extreme violence (made more disturbing by the cheerless setting, like the Ozarks in Winter’s Bone, only – ha! – less rich) between men and other men, men and children, men and dogs, and dogs and dogs. What women there are there for sex and submission, if they matter at all. Small-town Texas has never seemed so bleak.
Joe’s the good guy, but even he is a heap of trouble. He runs an illegal business poisoning trees in the woods, yet appears to be a boss who is well-liked by the African-American laborers he picks up every morning in his pickup truck. He drinks – even heavily – but never gets really drunk (or violent). Into his carefully constructed world – and it is carefully constructed, as we soon discover, since he has done previous jail time as reckless younger man – comes Gary, the son of a man who has given himself wholly over to his drinking. Poulter’s Wade – all hollowed cheekbones and wiry frame – is a frightening creature, and though he looks like the wind could blow him over, turns out to have a lot of strength left in those gnarled hands, which he uses to beat Gary down and (possibly) rape Gary’s sister (or at least pimp her out to willing strangers). The mother is a shadow, barely present.
Gary asks Joe for a job – money is scarce – and before he knows it, Joe is both surrogate big brother and father to the desperate young man. As he becomes more and more involved in the miseries of Wade’s clan, Joe’s own propensity for violence – along with his drinking – threatens to destroy his hard-fought (relatively) peaceful existence. But perhaps it will all be worth it, if he can save Gary from following in Wade’s and his footsteps.
Peopled with other local non-actors beyond Poulter and shot in real locations in and around Austin, Texas, Joe brings a fine level of authenticity to it, even while starring a major Hollywood actor. Perhaps it’s because that actor has never been finer, and the emotions he and his fellow cast members bring to the story feel as real as the sets. “What keeps me alive is restraint,” is what Joe says at one point in the film, and Cage seems to take that mantra to heart. Not always known for restraint as an actor, he here understands just what is needed. If you can keep your eyes open during the tough parts, you’ll find the experience of watching Joe well worth the discomfort.