After a more-than-long-enough hiatus from dramatic storytelling, director David Gordon Green returns to form with Joe. The direction is very similar to his previous effort, Prince Avalanche (that I reviewed), in which the acting and story are most important. There are no fancy angles or unnecessary fast cuts to get notice; this works off of simplicity in the camera work, mainly due to powerful performances from the cast and the stark and wasteland-like setting of rural Austin, Texas. Despite a police presence this small town feels lawless, and in this lawlessness comes desperation and true dramatic turns in the story. It’s a kind of every-man-for-himself tale of ruin and redemption.
This is not only a return to form for Green, but for the film’s star, Nicolas Cage, as well. Normally seen or described as an over-actor, his performance here is one of restraint and tenderness, despite his character’s checkered past. He does a phenomenal job of balancing anger and love, sometimes even in the same scene. He plays a man who has been there and done that as they say, and has seen even more. He isn’t quick to anger anymore, but once he reaches a certain point he goes to a state of irate out-of-hand behavior. Cage does such justice to the role as both an ex-con and unlikely mentor.
Joe is, but hasn’t always been, a mild mannered man who wants nothing more than to run his tree business and be left alone. He is kind and fair when he is treated likewise and when a young man approaches him for a job, Joe gives him a shot. Gary (Tye Sheridan, MUD) takes this chance to prove his worth and works as hard as the next man earning his place on Joe’s crew. Seeing something in this young man, Joe takes Gary under his wing and guides him with the job and some personal issues the boy is dealing with. Issues like his absentee, drunkard “father” who would rather drink and wallow in his own misery than do his duty as a father and a man. When Gary earns money, his father Wade (Gary Poulter) steals it from him to continue his drunken ways. It’s when Joe witnesses this firsthand that he really begins to form a bond with Gary and show him how to get along in life. Joe sees Gary’s relationship with his dad and knows the outcome will be nothing short of tragic; Joe just wants Gary to be on the better side of that impending tragedy. In the end Joe wants to help but also to let Gary make his own way, but that might not be in the cards for Joe. He will be forced into a situation he wanted nothing to do with, but as a friend to Gary he chooses confrontation with Gary’s transgressors. Friendship has its costs and Joe is willing to pay.
As strong as Cage’s performance is, as well as the fantastic turn that Tye Sheridan puts in, the real star is an unknown actor who plays Wade, the alcoholic dad. Gary Poulter was found living on the streets when he was approached by the casting director and asked to audition. Being an actor was a longtime dream for Gary and this was the chance of a lifetime. Not only did he land the third lead role and got the chance to act alongside Cage, Poulter stole the movie with his hauntingly realistic portrayal of a down in life man with addiction as his only crutch. Unfortunately the reason for his spot on performance is that Gary really wasn’t acting all that differently from himself. Now, in the film Gary’s character is a lowlife murdering beggar and Gary seemed a kind man. When it comes to the addiction of the character, this is where Gary’s true self begins to show through.
The character’s life of homelessness and alcoholism was something Gary was all too familiar with as he suffered from the same thing. A man given a final chance through acting – one would hope this would have had a happy ending, but life regretfully didn’t work that way. About two months after filming ended Gary’s body was discovered submerged in water. He is believed to have drowned in about three feet of water due to an alcoholic seizure that incapacitated him and caused him to pass out. He was only 53 years old. His life ended but at least he had one last chance to fulfill his dream and he certainly knocked this one out of the park.
Having learned of his passing prior to watching this film it made the experience all the more heartbreaking and authentic. A theme resonate throughout this film is about second chances and what one does when given this chance. This shows that life is hard but with a little help, things can turn out okay. Much like Gary given a chance to turn his life around, the character of Joe is given the chance to redeem himself and to guide a young man’s life away from the darkness. This is a very melancholic, slow-burning drama but it is also captivating. The characters are flawed and fascinating to watch as they navigate their lives. I highly recommend seeing Joe if you get the chance.
Rated R For: violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content
Run Time: 118 minutes
After Credits Scene: None
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Directed By: David Gordon Green
Out of 5 Nerdskulls
Story: 4.5/ Acting: 5/ Directing: 4.5/ Visuals: 4
OVERALL: 5 Nerdskulls