Nicolas Cage is one of those actors who has a history of choosing both good and not-so-good roles for himself. He has been a part of some excellent films, and put forward some incredible performances (Leaving Las Vegas, 8mm) while at the same time being a part of some pretty awful ones too (The Wicker Man) but here we see a return to form for Cage as he gives one of his best performances in more than a decade.
Directed by David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) who really takes a leap forward as a film-maker here and shows a side of himself that he hasn’t shown before in his previous films. Based on a novel by Larry Brown, Joe is a gritty drama set in the rural south of the US with its dirt roads and dishevelled paint-worn houses.
Joe is an ex-con attempting to live as normal a life as possible but with a past haunting him like a phantom on his shoulders, he has to deal with antagonists out to make life difficult for him, including a mindless sleazy thug named Willie-Russell and the local police. Joe runs a tree poisoning business and soon runs into a teenage boy called Gary (Tye Sheridan) who comes to Joe seeking work. The film focuses on Joe’s life and his growing relationship with the young boy who is suffering from abuse at the hands of his alcoholic father. Fighting for survival and attempting to thrive in a place that keeps pushing back harder than they can push forward, we watch a story of friendship, violence and tragedy unfold.
There are some brutal scenes in this film, and the camera doesn’t often turn away or cut, but instead allows you to see how insane the human race can be, and how much harm we are capable of doing, not just to one another, but to ourselves. There are also some tender moments, specifically between Joe and Gary, as they find friendship in one another, and Gary finds a mentor and someone to look up to. You can see, in Joe’s eyes, that he sees himself as a young man in Gary, and Gary see’s, in Joe, a vision of who he hopes to become.
Cage, as Joe, delivers a character full of emotion, be it anger, concern or regret. This is the best Cage has been, in my view, since 8MM in 1999. His performance is buzzing with energy and passion and it is captivating to see him in such a place on screen again. Sheridan, as Gary, delivers another performance, on par, or perhaps better, than the one he gave in the excellent “Mud” (2012). He is a star in the making, for sure. The surprise for me here though was the late Gary Poulter as “G-Daawg”, the abusive alcoholic father of Gary, a character with layers beneath the grotesque drunk dementia of his exterior. This is the only film that Poulter ever made, and his performance, filled with slurring words, seething anger and self-hatred is breath-taking. A supporting cast that helps bring a realistic and rustic feel to the whole production, Joe is one of those Southern tales that seeps from its pores with bourbon, tobacco spit and sweat and brings about a delicate yet harsh story of taking responsibility and fighting for the people you care about.
A subtle score and a way of shooting from Green that feels like you’re sat in the passenger seat beside Joe as he drives along the dusty Texas highways, it is one of those movie experiences that I was sad to see come to an end. I honestly feel like this is one of the best drama films of the past twelve months, and you should definitely find a way to watch it. Let’s hope this is a turning point for Nic Cage, and we see more roles like this from him in the future. Astonishing.