Where on earth did Nicholas Cage’s career go? Cage’s early career was filled with good performances and good movies. He worked with top-notch directors such as the Coen Brothers and Spike Jonze and he even won an Academy Award. But movie fans know the story. His worldwide real estate spending spree led to financial woes and soon Cage was excepting any role he was given to help get out of his mess. There have been brief glimmers of the old Nick Cage but for the most part he has become so synonymous with crappy movies.
But Cage is still a likable guy which is why I’m so excited to talk about “Joe”. I’m not sure if I’m ready to say Nicholas Cage is back, but this is an eye-opening performance and a bold reminder of what he can do when given good material and a capable director to work with. David Gordon Green is a filmmaker who has had his share of misses especially when he jumped into the mainstream comedy arena. But he is also a smart and nuanced director who can draw so much out of his stories and characters. Last year’s “Prince Avalanche” was a great example of that and “Joe” makes him two-for-two.
The film is set in a low income, deep south community. Joe Ransom (Cage) is a timber worker who runs a hard working local crew. He has a good reputation among his men and some of the locals. He meets and befriends a 15-year old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary has a tumultuous family life mainly due to his abusive and alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter). He finds an escape in Joe while also making some money to support his mother and sister.
Early on Joe looks to be a good and stable mentor and father figure. He is a sharp antithesis to Gary’s real father who is despicable in ever regard. But perhaps the most compelling thing about the movie is how Joe’s character unfolds. Throughout the film one thin layer after another is peeled back revealing a deeply flawed man with an intensely troubled past. He is a tortured soul assaulted by demons that we don’t always fully meet. His inability to cope with them sometimes makes him his own worst enemy. This forms the central conflict which drives a lot of the story.
Cage absolutely owns this character. His performance is saturated with grit and authenticity. He is the centerpiece of the picture and for those not familiar with his once promising acting chops, this is a spectacular showcase. Tye Sheridan follows up his wonderful work in “Mud” with a darker and more mature performance. He handles the heavy and emotionally charged material with the skill of a veteran. His opening scene with Poulter is piercing and uncomfortable and it sets the table for the rest of the picture. Speaking of Poulter, the realism in his performance is surreal and effectively disturbing. Even more unnerving is Poulter’s real story. He was homeless and a terrible alcoholic when Green cast him. This undoubtedly fueled his performance with such honesty. Sadly Poulter was found dead on the streets of Austin, Texas shortly before the film was set to debut.
Another key strength of the film is Green’s impeccable southern vision. The striking detail he puts in every little thing helps to create this otherworldly setting which is actually more real than many realize. The story flourishes in this sad and smothering environment and it just gets darker and darker as things progress. It could be said the film exploits southern stereotypes in order to create such a setting and sometimes the movie slips off the rails in its attempts. But ultimately it is a vivid and ferocious setting that never allows us to feel comfortable (and that is a good thing).
“Joe” isn’t an easy movie to digest. It is southern gothic to the core with an emphasis on the unpleasant and disturbing. It’s not a movie for the faint of heart. But it is an exciting return of sorts for Nicholas Cage and one can only hope it is a sign of things to come. “Joe” is uncomfortable and unflinching yet it is almost impossible to take your eyes off it. It may be a bit too abrasive, but the story at the heart of the film is what shines through in the end.