Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
Running time: 117 minutes
There's a scene in Nicolas Cage's new film Joe that seems made for any and all future online lists, blogs, or essays about the actor's most ridiculous moments. It comes midway into the film, with Cage's character, the eponymous Joe, heading into a private bedroom with a prostitute, to relieve tension caused by the country brothel's resident watch dog, a canine that Joe constantly refers to as "that asshole." Before the door shuts, Joe asks the woman, "What was your cat's name?"
Joe:" What's your favorite color?"
Joe: "Blow me."
In any other recent Nicolas Cage movie, that response would elicit howls of laughter, no doubt, but that's not the case in Joe. It's still reasonably funny and completely random, yes, but not at all ridiculous. By that point, Cage has already solidified his performance's excellence—he's sufficiently convinced you that Joe's his best movie in ages, that his acting's better than it's been in anything since, shit, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). "Blow me" feels like an added bonus for one's Cage-centric enjoyment amidst two hours' of grade-A filmmaking, not the only worthwhile future soundboard-ready line of dialogue in an altogether crap movie.
Which is to say, it's unintentionally jarring. An engrossing, brooding, character-powered drama, Joe comes from David Gordon Green, the erratic and unpredictable indie director who, here, is back in pristine, indie George Washington/Snow Angels form, far removed creatively from his underwhelming Hollywood detours like Your Highness and The Sitter. In a way, Green's on the same kind of trajectory as Cage—lately, both men have mostly been known for their diminishing potential, though at least Green's been actively working his way back towards his older, more respected ways (see: this summer's critically praised indie dramedy Prince Avalanche, starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch). Cage, however, continues to make disposable films like Seeking Justice (2011), Stolen (2012), and Frozen Ground (2013). You've never heard of those movie for good reasons.
In Green, though, Cage has found the motivation needed to, you know, legitimately act again. He's certainly been given a strong character. Based on Larry Brown's 1991 novel, Joe centers on its title character, an ex-con who oversees a ragtag group of tree-poisoners—workers who get rid of old trees for a lumber company's supply—in the backwoods of Mississippi. Warm-hearted and actively social, Joe knows everyone in town, and they all love him, but he's also harboring an angry side, constantly being provoked by his hard boozing. One day, a 15-year-old kid named Gary (The Tree of Life and Mud scene-stealer Tye Sheridan, as great as ever) shows up at his worksite asking for a job. The more time Joe spends with Gary, the clearer he sees the youngster's messed-up life: Gary's father (Gary Poulter, a first-time actor who gives an incredibly authentic performance) is a deadbeat drunk who hits him, his mother, and younger sister inside their condemned, unlivable shack. Struggling with his own demons, Joe sees an opportunity to do right by someone else for a change, but not without serious consequences.
At his best, Green creates naturalistic, real worlds that come across as not as movie sets but documentary locations. The woodsy community seen in Joe feels genuine to the point of the film often seeming like a cinéma vérité experiment offset by the unmistakable Cage-ness of one Nicolas Cage—no amount of unkempt facial hair can hide the world's most scrutinized Academy Award winner/dinosaur skull collector/possible vampire's A-list identity. The locals in Joe, right down to Gary's family, never give off a collective "actor" impression, and Cage, in an airtight turn that's up there with Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation., quickly settles right into that groove along with them. He's still Nicolas Cage, but a Southern-fried, lovable, dangerous version.
He's firing on all cylinders here, earning sympathy in his tender father-figure interactions with Gary, fiercely intimidating whenever, and, most impressively, getting big laughs without going overboard into Wicker Man territory. Though it's definitely a heavy, dark affair, Joe is humorous in all the right places, namely an enjoyable sequence where Joe and Gary share some beers and look for the elder's missing American Bulldog, named, perfectly, "Dog."
The highest compliment we can pay Joe, though, is this: Nothing in in Green's film would qualify for any forthcoming incarnations of our recent gallery of the "Nicolas Cage Reaction GIFs for the Emotionally Challenged." Or whatever other assortment of hilariously absurd Cage-isms the Internet has in store. Nope, not even that "Blow me" line, which comes close but, kudos to Cage's back-to-greatness performance and Green's marvelous direction, feels natural to the character.
A few more projects like this and The Cage (as we like to call him around these parts) may finally redeem himself for the sins of Next (2007), Bangkok Dangerous (2008), Knowing (2009), The Sorcerer's Apprentice (2010), Season of the Witch (2011), Drive… You get the idea.