David Gordon Green, most well known to the general public for his stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness, as well as the recently lauded Prince Avalanche with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, brought quite a different film to SXSW this year.
Adapted from the Larry Brown 1991 novel of the same name, Joe stars Nicolas Cage as a middle age ex-con trying to make a living at honest work and keep his old demons at bay, and Tye Sheridan as a young man coming of age with a violent drunk of a father. It would be too simple and obvious to say the film was about Cage’s Joe becoming an unlikely father figure to Sheridan’s Gary. It is about that. But that’s just the ground work upon which everything else relies.
Very much like last year’s Mud (also starring Sheridan and directed by Green’s friend, Jeff Nichols), the plot is only half the story. These characters are haunted. Haunted by their past, haunted by the present, haunted by the future, haunted by their families, haunted by their friends. The protagonists aren’t so much trying to be good as just trying to be true to themselves. Joe is an angry man, he knows what happens when he gets angry, and does his very best to avoid any situation in which his anger will take him over. But those situations find him easily enough. Gary is trying to navigate his way in his world, learning how to deal with his drunk father and enabling mother, while protecting his sister from the both of them. Joe gives Gary a job, and unintentionally inserts himself in a drama his conscience won’t let him back out of.
What makes this movie interesting, and worth your time, is the expert way in which Green sets the tone of the film and allows the story to unfold. The pacing is slow and uncomfortable, much in the way that living in the rural south probably would be for me. But each moment of the film, from the very beginning shows the audience something. There is no wasted screen time. And Cage’s screen time is golden. Everyone’s performance is excellent, but Cage steals the show. It’s worth a watch for that alone.
But the cast of minor characters, largely pulled from local Austin talent (including a local BBQ impresario and a guy Green met at a bus stop), add an incredible amount of realism to the feel of the film. Connie, played by Adriene Mishler – from last year’s heartbreaking Good Night, is Joe’s sometime-girlfriend who seems like she could be his lifeline to salvation. She speaks the most sense of anyone and clearly has a vision for the future, unlike everyone else who is just trying to survive the present. I got the distinct impression that if Joe had just listened to her, instead of his own demons, everything would have turned out so much differently.
And that’s the rub at the end of the film. You’re left with a sense of “if only”, and yet there is an underlying understanding that there was really no other way it could be. These people are making hard choices, lots of wrong ones for sure, but some right. And where they end up is only the beginning of another chapter. Much like real life.
I give it 4 out of 5 Nerdskulls.
Joe opens nationwide on April 9th.
Check out the trailer below:
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