It’s fitting that Nicolas Cage’s reputable acting career is getting yet another second chance through a film all about second chances. David Gordon Green’s Joe, the eclectic director’s first collaboration with the even more eclectic Cage, is a slow burning exploration of masculinity and poverty in the South based off a novel by Larry Brown that details the way a group of down on their luck people deal with the second chances they’ve been given. Joe is a fitting follow-up to Green’s minimalist feature Prince Avalanche, functioning as a dramatic foil to that film’s methodical comedy while sharing its intimate examination of menial labor. Though Cage has mostly been treated as a punch line for the last decade or so, Joe proves the unpredictable actor can still turn in a masterful performance and it helps that Green plays to Cage’s strengths and encourages his eccentricities.
As the titular Joe, Cage is full of explosive vulnerability, constantly striving to keep his rage in check while living a quiet, blue collar life leading a group of laborers tasked with killing off trees on land that’s set for redevelopment. Joe’s stable, hard working life is disrupted when an alcoholic drifter and his family come to town and Joe takes the drifter’s son Gary (Tye Sheridan) under his wing. Green populates Joe with unknown actors who nonetheless turn in stunning performances that feel entirely lived in, similar to the casting that made Richard Linklater’s Bernie stand out. Particularly remarkable is the late Gary Poulter, who brings a mesmerizing volatility to his role as Gary’s father; Green literally cast Poulter off the streets and there’s never any doubt that he’s lived through many of the experiences he portrays. But his performance isn’t a gimmick, Poulter has an undeniable charm that makes it easier to understand how his character is able to mislead his family and trick others into giving him multiple second chances.
Like Green’s early works, Joe has a casual quality to it that relegates story to the background in favor of character and scenery, though the film does build to an unexpected climax that pulls no punches. Green is unafraid to let scenes happen spontaneously, and Joe is a film where the mood and aesthetic of the small town at its heart is just as important as the performances of the cast. That said, this is undoubtedly Cage’s best work since Adaptation (and probably his last great role for some time, given his upcoming slate includes that Left Behind adaptation and National Treasure 3), and anyone in need of a reminder of what the actor is capable of shouldn’t hesitate to catch it.
A portion of this review originally appeared as part of Comics Bulletin’s SXSW coverage.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with Dylan Garsee on twitter: @Nick_Hanover