SXSW FILM 2014
By Linc Leifeste | March 9, 2014
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Larry Brown (novel), Gary Hawkins (screenplay)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Heather Kafka, Sue Rock
With Joe, his taut adaptation of novelist Larry Brown’s dark Southern character-study, director David Gordon Green completes a welcome return journey to his roots, one that was hinted at with last year’s dark buddy comedy, Prince Avalanche. But even more strikingly, Joe marks a a triumphant return for Nicolas Cage, his restrained, simmering, dangerous-feeling performance miles away from a long run of hammy overacting in poorly chosen roles that was coming perilously close to defining his career. But the film turns just as much on the impressive performance of Tye Sheridan, who only three films into what is quickly shaping up to be one hell of a career has already worked with directors Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green. Let that sink in for a moment.
Joe (Cage) is the foreman of a team of tree poisoners, hired to use their “juice hatchets” to poison acres of smaller, weaker trees so they can be replaced by more profitable pines. Slightly puffy and alcoholic, Cage lives a solitary home life, his only companion being a symbolically menacing dog he keeps chained at his front porch. While Cage is a generous, respectful figure to his African-American crew, he’s a man who can’t shake his violent past, who has served time, and has learned to survive in a constant state of self-restraint and self-medication. But fate, of course, has different plans for Joe.
Enter Gary (Sheridan), who has just arrived in town with his family, which is under the heavy thumb of his abusive, addicted father. In a beautiful dream-like sequence, Gary wanders into the midst of Joe’s crew, busy hacking away at trees, and eventually winds up asking Joe for work for him and his father. Joe is hesitant but takes Gary on and the young pupil proves to be a hard worker and an eager learner. His father, on the other hand, is a bust during his one day on the crew. When Joe witnesses Gary’s father’s abuse first-hand, he represses any urge to step in but soon hesitantly finds himself serving as a much-needed father figure.
There are also other forces at work. Borderline comedic but still violently dangerous town bully, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), has an ongoing one-sided feud with Joe and also recently had a run-in with Gary and vengeance is always on his addled mind. Beautiful, young Connie (Adriene Mishler), one-time squeeze of Joe’s and between homes, has temporarily landed back at Joe’s place while lining up alternate living arrangements, and she’s encouraging Joe to take a more active role in protecting Gary from his father. All of this, with the feel of doomed destiny, adds up to a violent, climactic finale.
Green shows a deft hand in seamlessly blending equal parts coming-of-age story, Southern Gothic, Western, redemption story and black comedy. Along the way, Joe takes a meditative look at the role allowed traditional masculinity in a more humane, modern society and how a person shaped by earlier views on masculinity might have trouble acclimating to modern expectations. There was a time when a person like Joe might have been able to travel to the frontier to possibly find a meaningful, productive existence, but as the film says, “There is no frontier anymore.”
The film’s contemplative mood is aided by cinematographer Tim Orr and composer David Wingo, who play a role in elevating several sequences, such as when Joe spends a day carousing with Gary while teaching him a few lessons, to rare artistic heights. Alternately, there are sequences, such as of the work crew going about their work or of Joe assisting in processing a deer, that almost have the naturalistic feel of a documentary. Throughout, Green manages to immerse the viewer in the darker corners of the world of the working (or not) poor, the folks on the fringe of society who are mostly ignored (except for occasionally by the police) while they struggle to survive on their own. And for the most part, much to his credit, Green treats these characters with respect.