If one were to construct a venn diagram comparing Jeff Nichols’ 2013 film Mud and the newly released in theaters and video on demand film Joe helmed by David Gordon Green, the overlap would be enormous. Both films star Tye Sheridan as the teenage lead, and feature an arc where uncaring parents create a deficiency in male role models and are taken in by a charismatic loner with a mysterious past played by a famous actor with an inconsistent filmography (Matthew McConaughey and Nicolas Cage). Additionally, both films take place in the American south. Green is a more established director than Nichols, though his career took a bit of a detour when he directed some pretty underwhelming studio comedies (Your Highness, The Sitter and Pineapple Express). Joe represents a return to form for Green, more along the lines of his early work and last year’s Prince Avalanche.
Joe (Cage) is a blue collar ex-con who runs a business clearing out trees in the forest for the purposes of replacing them with more desirable foliage. He clearly has had a rough past, but generally seems to have reached some sense of stability in his life. When a 15 year old boy named Gary (Sheridan) comes to the forest looking for work, a quick bond forms between the two leads. As Joe learns more about Gary’s home life and his abusive, alcoholic father Wade (aka G-Daawg, portrayed by Gary Poulter), he must decide how involved he wants to be in the boy’s life, while simultaneously fighting his own dark past bubbling up at the least opportune times.
Like Mud, Joe is a slow-burning, southern independent family drama that is generally light on action and heavy on character interaction. Adapting from the novel by Larry Brown, screenwriter Gary Hawkins gives the film a strong and consistent tone that doesn’t feel too familiar despite the plot’s similarities to films past. Gordon Green directs with a sure hand; he clearly works well with cinematographer Tim Orr, who has worked with the director on nearly all of his projects and certainly brings the correct tricks to match films as disparate as Pineapple Express and this one. There’s a lot of Malick in Joe, including an extended narration sequence set to slow panning nature shots, which is about as Malick-y as it gets. The approach fits and works well here, and the flourishes feel like natural homages instead of shortcuts.
In a film like this, the use of sound and cinematography are important, but its overall success hinges on the quality of its acting. Nicolas Cage is best described as a loose cannon, capable of great performances and just as capable of the sort of camp for which Youtube exists. He’s been on a bit of a cold streak, and probably hasn’t put in a truly stellar performance since 2002’s Adaptation. The character of Joe is somewhat even keeled, but is prone to outbursts that easily could have gone awry had Cage made the wrong decisions. Luckily, Gordon Green has Cage on the correct leash, and expertly guides him through a role that is easily his best performance in years. This is essentially Sheridan’s third turn in a role like this (after Mud and Malick’s The Tree of Life), and remains strong. It will be nice to see how he can stretch himself beyond this type in future roles. The real revelation here is Gary Poulter as the abusive father. Gordon Green grabbed Poulter off the street, who was a homeless alcoholic man in Austin, and dropped him right into this film. He brings such a sense of truth and unpredictability to his performance that he easily commands the screen. It’s a small but captivating role that culminates in a most shocking and stomach turning scene. Poulter died shortly after filming wrapped, but has left quite a legacy behind.
For what it is, Joe is a thoroughly entertaining jaunt through the backwoods of the American South, offering strong performances supported by well-designed and competent filmmaking. Cage’s return to form and the continuing development of Sheridan make for a compelling mix of a coming-of-age story with the tale of a man struggling with his past. The film isn’t necessarily covering any new ground, but this ground is well-trod for a reason, and David Gordon Green is more than capable of spinning a yarn that is compelling and entertaining, while adding enough to the proceedings to single it out among the crowded film landscape.