By Simon Miraudo
July 2, 2014
Nicolas Cage is as if the question “Turn down for what?” took human form and then starred in a bunch of direct-to-DVD thrillers. For him, there is no such thing as a ‘phoned-in’ performance. Performances should be delivered with gusto, peppered with screaming fits. It’s become harder and harder to defend his late career choices (belonging to what I like to call the ‘Castle Repayment Collection’) but he, as a screen presence, remains oddly compelling, with such uniquely weird energy. Even Kevin Costner‘s recent rebranding has him seeming like a low-rent Liam Neeson. There’s only one Nicolas Cage. If there were more than one Nicolas Cage, the internet wouldn’t know what to do with itself.
So imagine what Cage, always committed to being committed, could pull off in an honest-to-goodness decent movie. David Gordon Green, a once-promising director whose second act saw him produce dumb stoner comedies like Your Highness, has himself hit the reboot button with his plaintive, pastoral Joe. The name in the title belongs to Cage’s character, a well-liked, bad-tempered ex-con eking out a modest living clearing trees in a ruined, desolate Texas. Young Gary (Tye Sheridan), an eager-to-impress teen, has it harder, trying to provide for his destitute family in spite of the short fuse he inherited from his abusive, alcoholic, and (here’s the kicker) break dancing father Willie (Gary Poulter, a homeless actor who died shortly after production was completed). As Gary’s situation becomes more dire, and his father resorts to more disgusting means of getting by, Joe risks making some dangerous enemies by helping the boy out, teaching him how to be a man, and in the flick’s lone joyful moment, how to look cool.
Green is certainly closer to his Malickian roots than he was with even last year’s lyrical Prince Avalanche, aided by cinematographer Tim Orr (who is certainly better suited to shooting the expansive outdoors than he was trying to keep up in Green’s improv-heavy comedies). Joe, to many, will bring to mind Mud, the Jeff Nichols/Matthew McConaughey joint that came just when McConaughey needed it. It too starred Tye Sheridan as a boy who learned about manhood from a wandering criminal with a heart of gold. However, Nichols’ picture is about romance and heartbreak, and Green’s is about poverty and desperation. Stars, setting, and title brevity is where the similarities between Joe and Mud end.
A closer comparison would be Winter’s Bone, though that had the benefit of a star-making turn from Jennifer Lawrence, and a stealthily-hidden hard-boiled detective story under the surface. Joe is a much tougher watch, full of people making bad decisions with worse consequences. Do its rewards, namely the bonding scenes shared by Cage and Sheridan, make the experience worthwhile? Certainly. Joe won’t reset Cage’s career the way Mud reset McConaughey’s. That’s only because Cage’s doesn’t need resetting. It’s the perception of him that needs to change. If only more directors like Green would realise Cage is the uncommon actor who knows precisely how to make their film better. The despairing, haunted, redemptive tale of Joe deserves its own despairing, haunted, redemptive lead performance. Hopefully that’s how people see it.
Joe plays the Revelation Perth International Film Festival 5, 7, 9, and 11 July, 2014.