by Matt Levine
The gritty deep South thriller Joe may be well-directed and, at times, solidly performed, but your appreciation of it will likely depend on your tolerance for drunk, stoic men growling nobly through their suffering. Both brawny and sappy, Joe wallows in the testosterone so relentlessly exuded by its cast—you can practically smell the whiskey, cigarettes, and stale body odor. This is a testament to director David Gordon Green’s ability to evoke a vivid atmosphere, though in this case that atmosphere is as ridiculous as it is compelling—yet another clenched-fist melodrama in which latent male rage is ultimately revealed as redemptive and cathartic. Thankfully, though, unlike in Jacques Audiard’s inane Rust and Bone (2012), the violence that explodes during the climax is ruefully perceived as a necessary travesty on the path to tranquility, turning Joe into the story of a hot-tempered Christ figure whose sacrifice provides the salvation for a sensitive, tormented young boy.
Director: David Gordon Green
Producers: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Christopher Woodrow
Writers: Gary Hawkins, Larry Brown (novel)
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Editor: Colin Patton
Music: Jeff McIlwain
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, AJ Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells
Premiere: August 30, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 11, 2014
US Distributors: Roadside Attractions, Lionsgate
Much has been made of Nicolas Cage’s “return to form” performance, which is indeed his strongest effort at least since Bad Lieutenant Port of Call: New Orleans in 2009. What’s more, Joe doesn’t provide the crutch of Cage’s patented emotive freak-out scenes, forcing him to employ the more understated methods on display in Adaptation (2002) and Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The actor’s more polished performances would likely seem less revelatory if he didn’t accept so many insipid roles in awful action movies, but his seething unpredictability in Joe is still something of a surprise—always on the verge of tipping into tempestuous fury, though scarier when it’s only barely contained. He plays Joe Ransom, a forty-something loner with a whiskey bottle perpetually in hand, who works for a lumber company poisoning trees to clear the land. Joe has done his time in prison for a vaguely recounted run-in with the police; now released and legitimately employed, he does what he can to keep to himself and remain peaceful, though his anger and distrust of authority continue to smolder combustibly (as they do in all men, the movie suggests somberly).
His brusque attempts at self-isolation falter when he meets Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager whose family has recently moved to the film’s rural Texan community. Boldly following Joe and his primarily black crew into the woods, Gary asks for a job for him and his father; perhaps disarmed by Gary’s frankness, Joe quickly agrees. The pseudo-father-son relationship that develops between Gary and Joe is conveyed tenderly and believably, thanks primarily to Cage and Tye Sheridan’s understated rapport. After his strong roles in The Tree of Life (2011) and Mud (2012), Sheridan continues to prove why he might be this generation’s most talented newcomer.
Gary’s seemingly innate warmth and innocence do battle with the masculine inclination to control and subjugate everything around oneself, explicitly personified by Gary’s father Wade (Gary Poulter). A repugnant alcoholic who makes Joe look like a teetotaler by comparison, Wade robs and cheats in order to procure his all-important liquor—that is, when he’s not mercilessly beating his wife, daughter, or Gary. Chillingly portrayed by Poulter (who sadly died shortly after filming wrapped), Wade is a vision of all-out masculine evil, a violent, greedy, selfish monster who stands in the way of Gary’s promising future. There is no complexity to Wade’s character, but seeing how Joe is mostly intended as a symbolic confrontation of goodness and evil in the hearts of men (with all of the pomposity that theme suggests), Wade’s archetypal nature is effective nonetheless.
If Wade represents pure cruelty and his son Gary radiates the sweetness of youth, Joe of course is the median between the two extremes—prone to a bullheaded rage yet struggling to embrace peace and goodness. In Gary, Joe sees a path to redemption, a way to absolve his past sins; for Gary, meanwhile, Joe becomes the father he always wanted. Yet as they grow closer, Joe realizes he must intervene in Gary’s home life and wage war against his despicable father, leading to an inevitable, catastrophic confrontation.
At least there’s meat on Joe’s gaunt Southern-noir skeleton, but the movie’s ideas are alternately simplistic and dubious. The idea that an act of violence is sometimes necessary to instill hope for the future is a destructive and deluded philosophy—the same kind of thinking that justifies widespread war. Perhaps morality is a gray area in which simplistic binaries of right and wrong don’t always apply, but Joe’s might-makes-right generalization is guilty of the same kind of chauvinism that it occasionally condemns. Even worse, the film goes to great lengths to allow us to delight in Joe’s carnage: he’s supposed to gravitate between good and evil, but there’s never any question that he stands on the side of justice and honor. Even an explosive scene in which Joe brings his pit bull to a whorehouse in order to attack and kill their irritating guard dog—then tersely demands a blowjob from a prostitute while the animals tear away at each other—is made exciting rather than disturbing by the fast-tempo music, handheld cinematography, and narrative context (the guard dog at the whorehouse had terrorized Joe in an earlier scene, providing a minuscule justification). This sequence is supposed to reveal Joe’s sense of male entitlement and the animalism of humanity (we only attack each other in more “civilized” ways than our canine counterparts), but it comes off as ludicrous and sensationalistic.
Joe’s ethical interrogation of masculinity is also problematic because the villains are all simplistic scum: it’s hard to condemn violence if we’re rooting for the antihero to kill the antagonists the entire time. There’s Wade, of course, who not only steals money from his son and pulls a knife on him, but also bludgeons a homeless man to death with a rusty pipe in order to steal his bottle of wine—a graphically violent and truly chilling scene which has us clamoring for Wade’s vicious comeuppance. (This diversion is also totally extraneous—there’s no reason Joe should have a nearly two-hour running time.) Another villain named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) is awkwardly interspersed in the plot, mostly to goad Joe and Gary into attacking him--picking fights is apparently a macho pastime in this community. Willie seems like a superfluous character until the climax, when Wade sells his mute prepubescent daughter to Willie and a leering redneck friend; the two of them intend to rape her in the back of a van, which is the very moment at which Joe, gun drawn, triumphantly enters the fray. (The fact that Gary’s sister is mute—not to mention nameless—could have been interesting since her muteness is apparently a conscious decision meant to estrange herself from everyone around her, but instead she comes off as a trite symbol for cherubic innocence, her lack of dialogue allowing the filmmakers to completely avoid turning her into a real character.) Such plot contortions may provide a compelling ending and allow the film to kill off several characters while hypocritically condemning violence, but it also turns most of the storyline into a contrived and overstuffed mess.
It would have been nice if Joe had contextualized all of this virile violence against a society of impoverishment, sexual inequality, and psychological compensations for powerlessness; but the film, as adept as it is at evoking a vivid, fetid atmosphere, has little interest in plumbing that environment for social conditions. The poverty so blatantly on display, from dilapidated gas stations to rotting shacks in the wilderness, is mostly meant to provide gutter exoticism. A few scenes—like one woman’s callous berating of her husband for not being able to skin a deer, or the casually misogynistic dialogue shared by some of Joe’s employees—provide fleeting insight into the conditions which might foster and encourage such callous male violence, but these moments are few and far between.
Joe clearly doesn’t work as an ethical interrogation of masculine good and evil, and it’s equally spotty as a character study—most of these figures are too broadly symbolic to register as complex, shaded human beings. Some critics have been duped by the film’s self-serious tone, with Slant Magazine’s David Lee Dallas calling it “a detailed character study, a Christ-haunted morality play, a journey of becoming, an elegy”—as though a morbid story of a hard-drinking, righteous Southern vigilante were anything new. Where the film does excel, though, is in its directorial prowess and the commanding performances by Cage and Sheridan. David Gordon Green has long been touted as the most eclectic and uncategorizable director in modern American movies, jolting from quirky indie comedy-dramas (All the Real Girls, 2003; Snow Angels, 2007) to goofy stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, 2008; Your Highness, 2011) to deadly-serious Southern noir (Undertow, 2004). While a more cohesive style might give Green more authorial (or auteurial) credence, his agile command of tone and mise-en-scène across a wide variety of genres is impressive. For Joe, Green (working with cinematographer Tim Orr, production designer Chris Spellman, and set decorator Helen Britten) emphasizes a muddy, earth-toned color scheme, handheld but finely orchestrated camerawork, and meticulous set design that oozes verisimilitude. Tiny touches like the pink blanket and dog-patterned couch we see when Joe watches television are unique enough to ring true, and the extras who drift in and out of scenes (like Joe’s crew, or the Vietnam-vet gas station attendant) naturalistically spout dialogue which, if not improvised, is impeccably scripted.
The world in which Joe takes place, then, is believably immersive, even if the events that transpire within it are too often deluded and simplistic. Even when the film is at its most frustrating, though, there are always the magnetic performances by Cage and Sheridan to pull us back in, bringing a dose of tenderness and subtlety to the otherwise clichéd storyline and overindulgent themes. The very end of the film is a perfect example: following a somewhat ridiculous climax, an unexpectedly graceful denouement pays tribute to Joe’s sacrifice and professes hope for the future. Your head tells you that such a trite coda, with murder leading to rebirth and renewal, is seriously misguided; but your heart is unavoidably affected by characters given such vivid life by the two leading actors. Joe is a triumph for Cage and Sheridan, whose work makes the film worth watching; but it’s only a middling success for Green, who overindulges the story’s brawny sermonizing. His next film, Manglehorn (set for release later this year), also professes to be “the Texas-set story of an ex-con trying to go straight,” which is unfortunate: the frustratingly inconsistent director would be well-served finding a middle-ground between the pot-fueled absurdity of Pineapple Express and the balls-to-the-wall turgidity of Joe.