After helming three mainstream studio comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness and The Sitter) to mixed results, David Gordon Green wrote and directed Prince Avalanche in an effort to go back to his roots with films like George Washington, Undertow, All the Real Girls and Snow Angels. Given the acclaim that Prince Avalanche received, it’s safe to say that David Gordon Green is slowly making his way back into the hearts of arthouse aficionados. In a fun coincidence, another man desperately in need of a comeback is a part of David Gordon Green’s latest project, and that would be actor Nicolas Cage. Which brings us to the film simply called Joe.
The film follows Joe (Nicolas Cage and his glorious beard), an ex-con who reluctantly becomes a father figure for Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary drifts with his homeless family headed by his deadbeat dad Wade (Gary Poulter), a man who cares very little about his family, and is only out to satisfy himself, but he doesn’t put much effort into that either. However, problems arise when it seems that Joe’s past is catching up to him and he is left to choose whether to accept his nature or to redeem himself in the eyes of the one person who believes in him.
Of course the first thing I will bring up here is Nicolas Cage. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, even during his (to put it lightly) rougher years recently. If there’s one thing to get out of Joe, it is that the film reminds us just how fantastic of an actor Nicolas Cage can be when given the right material and direction because he is absolutely brilliant in this film. He adds a lot of personality to a character that is by no means a “good” man, but you can’t help but root for his character to do the right thing and to earn his redemption, despite the constant temptation of going back to his criminal ways and it is captivating seeing Cage play it out.
Another cast member that does great is Tye Sheridan. I honestly think this guy is one blockbuster away from being one of the next big stars, basically what Dane DeHaan has managed to do with only a few films in his resume. Tye Sheridan is extremely talented and he can easily stand toe-to-toe with some of the biggest Hollywood stars, much like how he did here with Cage, as well as last year in Mud with Matthew McConaughey. I’ll be very interested in seeing where his career goes. Like any David Gordon Green film, the supporting characters are impeccably cast, with a good handful of them being non-actors, and everyone does a great job creating a very natural feel with the dialogue. And with actors including, but not limited to, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Adriene Mishler and Heather Kafka, not one actor disappoints.
David Gordon Green does an excellent job with creating a dark atmosphere within the rich, Southern environment. He also does well with building tension and the little outbursts of brutal violence. It is all captured beautifully by cinematographer (and David Gordon Green regular), Tim Orr. The writing is absolutely top notch by Gary Hawkins, adapting the novel of the same name by Larry Brown, filling the film with naturalistic and idiosyncratic dialogue. The music by Jeff McIlwain adds a great deal to the haunting atmosphere of the film, and it becomes that much more effective due to how understated the music actually is.
I can see people making comparisons to the film Mud, and honestly, the comparisons are minimal at best. Granted the casting of Tye Sheridan doesn’t help (hopefully he doesn’t get typecasted), but thematically and tonally, the films are quite different. Speaking of tone, one thing that could turn some off is the depressing mood of the film. It is uncompromising and at times, hard to watch. It also moves at a deliberately slow pace, and it does take a while for the film to really get going. I should also say that I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say much of the film in terms of being an adaptation, but the film works fantastically as its own work.
Joe is a moody and atmospheric Southern gothic made with precision by those behind the camera and excellent performances in front. Nicolas Cage pulls of one of the best roles of his career, and hopefully it will start a revival similar to what Matthew McConaughey achieved. David Gordon Green also managed to make one of his best films in years. Overall, the film was entrancing, interesting, immersive and gripping. Joe is a beautiful, but violent portrait of damaged people placed in desperate situations.
Side Note: As great as the supporting cast is, the stand out was Gary Poulter, who is homeless in real life and unfortunately died on February 19th, 2013, just two months after filming ended. He never got to see the finished film. I highly recommend this article from The Austin Chronicle called His Name Was Gary Poulter.