Long story short: Nicolas Cage rules as an ex-con who tries to go straight, but a new friendship forces him down a dark and familiar path.
Joe will remind you of: Sling Blade, Mud, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Hi Lo Country
Review: Redemption is found in unexpected places in David Gordon Green's Joe, a character study of an ex-convict and the boy who enters his life and upends it. The story has been done: The damaged man finds a reason to believe thanks to an innocent. But it hasn't been done by Green, a southern-born American director whose best work is about places and the people, like Joe, stuck in them.
Nicolas Cage plays Joe, an ex-con doing his best to stay straight. For work, he leads a crew of misfits on tree-killing missions for land developers. The work is hard but Joe only cares about getting his bills paid. He "does what he's told" these days.
Close by, Gary (Tye Sheridan) sits with his drunken father Wade (Gary Poulter). "You're gonna get your ass beat... sure gon' do." Gary's sick of the old man and isn't afraid to tell him. But the words earn him a bloody lip and Wade stumbles off. Alone, with nothing but his tattered clothes, Gary discovers Joe and his crew in the woods. He sees the guys swinging axes and asks what's going on. Joe's gracious upon meeting him, offering him a job as long as he can do the work.
What'll strike you immediately about Joe is the authenticity of what's onscreen. It's a return to dramatic form for Green who once made George Washington, All the Real Girls, and Undertow in succession before testing out the comedy genre in recent years. It's exciting to get another drama out of the Texas-bred filmmaker. He has a natural sense for depicting how people walk and talk in everyday life. Cage leads the way in Joe with an edgy, unpredictable performance, but he's surrounded by talent. Sheridan, who proved his worth in last year's Mud, has the downtrodden teen thing down. And most of the rest of Joe's cast is a collection of non-actors who ground the film. Beasts of the Southern Wild did the same thing a few years back, allowing normal people to live onscreen.
Of the supporting cast, Gary Poulter stands out as Wade. This is a performance, much like Dwight Henry's in Beasts, that makes it hard to believe there's acting involved. Poulter is this guy, this menace. His eyes are dead and his mouth's ragged like he's been sucking lemons. Wearing a dumpster jacket that says "G-Daawg" on the back, Wade stumbles around town in a vodka-fueled stupor. It's when he's sober he really gets dangerous.
Across town is Joe, whom Cage makes endearing with generosity. We know he's a good man from his relationships. He has friends all over town who know him by name. The local convenience store isn't just a place to get milk, it's a gathering spot for the locals and the owner is a buddy. Ditto the local police chief and the lady down the road who can't skin a deer. Green and his screenwriter Gary Hawkins understand the sense of community in small towns and that shows up onscreen.
Green doesn't pit Joe and Wade against one another outright, but there's a humming sense of inevitability about the film that starts with these two men in the center. Something's got to give and as Joe and Gary get closer, and Joe sees firsthand what the boy's father is capable of, the pot begins to boil over. That expectation drives Joe to a violent end that closes a chapter for all these characters.
At the heart of Joe is a moral quandry. Do we stand by in the face of injustice and play it safe, or throw our hat in the ring and take a risk? It's a cinematic idea that can usually be found in antihero stories. Redemption is never earned easily. It's also not easy to make a troubled man noble. But Cage succeeds with an everyman performance that's different from what he's done lately. Usually, you find him at the center of a situation out of his control. His characters are forced into action by extreme circumstance. That actually happens again in Joe, but this time more organically. Cage plays a character who makes a conscious choice. His hand isn't forced.