Review: JOE (SXSW 2014)

By Mark Saldana

Rating 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

I have said it before, and I will continue to make this statement about Nicolas Cage movies. Usually going into a Nicolas Cage movie is a gamble. Cage has become the film world’s box of assorted chocolates. One never knows what they’re going to get, but more often than not, the experience is sweet nevertheless. Now whether Nic Cage offers his audience sweetness in the form of cinematic junk food and wildly insane overacting, or the sweetness of genuine substance and nuanced restraint, depends on his writing/directing collaborators. With director David Gordon Green in the chair and a well written script by Gary Hawkins (based on the novel by Larry Brown), Joe offers audiences the latter version of Nicolas Cage and this return to form is long overdue.

Cage stars as the title character, Joe Ransom, an ex-con who leads a work crew of men hired to poison trees for clearing. The rough and hard living Joe hires a teenager by the name of Gary (Tye Sheridan), an impoverished kid who struggles to barely maintain a home with a numb mother, a taciturn sister, and a violently abusive alcoholic father. While working together, Joe and Gary form a close friendship. Joe, who has mostly avoided trouble since his release from prison, puts his life and freedom on the line when Gary and his father (Gary Poulter) tangle with the wrong people. Though his heart is in the right place, Joe’s desire to protect Gary awakens a dark side within him that has tried to remain dormant for some time.

Not only does this movie mark a return to form for Nicolas Cage, it also is the second film of David Gordon Green that returns him to his character-driven, independent film roots. Before Green began making a string of comedy films (beginning with Pineapple Express), he was known for making small, understated independent films, most of which have dark stories and take place in small rural towns. After his last two comedy films (Your Highness, The Sitter) received some critical disdain and did not do well financially, Green pleasantly surprised his fans with Prince Avalanche, a comedic film that actually has an intelligent script, and doesn’t try to elicit laughs with over-the-top, profane gags. Though Green did not pen Joe’s script, he certainly chose wisely in selecting this Gary Hawkins adaptation.

The strength of Hawkins’ script lies in how well he develops his characters and the slow burning build up that leads to the story’s explosive moments. The plot itself feels similar to films like Sling Blade, and last year’s Mud. So don’t expect anything dynamically new from the story. Still, because of the superb writing and the exceptional performances of the entire cast, this movie is not one to miss.

Tye Sheridan, who had his first breakthrough role in Mud, follows up with a more mature and intense performance in another coming-of-age story. Hopefully, this doesn’t mean he will continue to be typecast in similar roles, because I see the potential for him to branch out and handle different kinds of characters. Sadly, audiences won’t get to see anymore performances from first time actor, Gary Poulter who portrays Gary’s father Wade. Poulter, apparently was a homeless man whom Green had found and cast in this big role. The man was truly incredible as this despicable character. Unfortunately,  Poulter would pass away a few weeks after shooting completed. I didn’t recognize him at all in this movie, but was convinced that his work on screen was that of a seasoned and well trained actor.  It truly is sad that this was his first and only role on the big screen.

Another villainous role is superbly filled by actor Ronnie Gene Blevins who portrays Willie-Russell, a cowardly type always starting trouble. This character’s penchant for instigating conflict brings out the worst in Joe and sets a chain of events in motion which lead to the film’s dark and violent journey. As for THE Nicolas Cage, the man is simply phenomenal here. His restrained performance may be perhaps his most natural and might just be his best acting on screen to this day. As Matthew McConaughey has had a winning streak of great movies and exceptional performances, I am sincerely hoping that this role takes Cage on a similar path of excellent films and acclaim-worthy acting.

Both Cage and McConaughey (prior to his resurgence), have made some seriously questionable choices in their careers and have their share of head scratching performances, but Cage had yet to bring himself back to top form. That is, until now. Joe marks a refreshing and exciting return to impressive filmmaking and acting for both David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage. For their fans (myself included), let’s hope this is the beginning of a long and successful string of cinematic achievements.  I look forward to a day when selecting a Cage movie is no longer a gamble.

 

 

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