What does it mean to be a friend? Does it mean you get together every once in a while at the local bar and gossip about this and that? Or call each other up on the phone occasionally and ask how each other are doing? Not in the world of Joe (directed by David Gordon Green). Being a friend makes you responsible for that person’s life in one way or another. A certain amount of their burden becomes your burden. And at a certain point in the film, Nicholas Cage’s Joe sits in his shabby pickup truck and watches young Gary’s father smack the boy around and steal the kid’s hard earned money for himself. At that moment, Joe is faced with the ultimate decision: should he just ignore it and allow the kid to go down the same dark path that once consumed him or should he step in and risk losing everything he’s struggled to build for himself? At what cost is it to care for someone?
Joe runs a business that poisons trees for a lumber company. With axes dripping with a poisonous liquid, the group of men strikes the trees hard to make sure the poison gets in there good. Gary (played terrifically by Mud’s Tye Sheridan) is a good hearted and bright eyed kid who’s determined to provide for his mother and sister but his angry and drunk father doesn’t exactly make that an easy task. It’s his innocence and hardworking nature that draws Joe to him when he shows up one day to ask for work. After the day’s work Joe pays him, tells him he can come back and that he’ll give his father a job too if the kid likes. When Gary does bring his father over, Wade, the man doesn’t exactly show the same kind of impressive work ethic as his son and is quickly told never to come back.
Wade is played ferociously by Gary Poulter, who surprisingly never acted before this movie. In fact, Poulter was a homeless man before David Gordon Green hired him for this film. Another interesting fact is that the man really did suffer from a drinking problem and, sadly, shortly after filming he was found dead. Poulter’s first and last role is one of the most powerful portrayals of evil I’ve ever seen, one I will not be able to shake for a long time.
As Joe and Gary’s bond grows, both of their problems start to grow into each other and begin to mutate. Joe’s feud with a scarred tough guy named Willie-Russell, played by Ronnie Gene Blevins, becomes more and more violent as does Gary’s relationship with his father. At a certain point, Gary knocks down and beats Blevins’ character after he threatens the boy’s family, showing a glimpse of the man he may one day become, not unlike Joe. It’s in this similarity that Joe feels an obligation towards Gary. Joe is, in a way, responsible for keeping him from going down that same path as he once did.
Nicholas Cage does a terrific job as Joe, the man with the past. Nicholas Cage has developed a kind of reputation through the years after playing in terrible films like Drive Angry, Season of the Witch, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, and the so bad it’s good The Wicker Man. But with Joe, Cage shows us that the actor he once was is still around, that those days may not be over just yet. The days when he played in such masterpieces as Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, and Bringing out the Dead. I’ve never thought badly of Cage. In fact, he may be one of the greatest living actors; he’s just played in too many bad movies. When I come across people who call him a bad actor I ask them, “Have you seen Bringing out the Dead?” Nine times out of ten, they haven’t. He brings such dimension to the character of Joe. In certain scenes we don’t even need to hear him talk, we can just look in his eyes and see exactly what the character’s thinking. No one else could have brought to this character what Cage has, and I can say that in all honesty without the slightest hesitation.
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a film from director David Gordon Green. Like the star of this film, he’s gone through a bit of a rough patch in his career. He’s made films like George Washington and Snow Angels early on and then went on to make films like Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter. Now, Pineapple Express was a pretty alright film but I can’t say the same for Your Highness or The Sitter. Those two films set the bar pretty low for him. And then he went on to make last year’s Prince Avalanche. Prince Avalanche showed us a glimpse of a returning film maker, but with Joe I think it’s safe to say we can officially mark his return.
Anger is the big word at the center of this film. Whether it’s Willie angry at Joe for embarrassing him in front of his friends, or Joe’s anger towards what the world’s done to him, or Gary’s anger towards his father, or his father’s anger towards everything that moves. Joe is a film about anger and what it does to us. It grabs hold of us, controls us, poisons us like the snake Joe catches when he first meets Gary or like the poison Wade cheats and steals to get in order to escape his miserable existence. This is what anger looks like. These are the things anger does to us. This is what anger makes us do. Can a person find redemption in an angry world?
Joe is the kind of film that will take hold of you and won’t let go long after you see it. It’s been a couple of days now since I saw it and I’m still going over each scene in my head over and over again. Oddly enough, I didn’t hear about this film until about a week ago, just a day or two before its release. It was one of the nicest surprises of this year and marks a solid return for both its director and star. A