(118 minutes, Rated R)
The movie that has become known as the ‘Mud clone,’ Joe is the farthest thing from a carbon copy of that McConaughey vehicle. Yes, it contains a similar ‘role model’ storyline with the same actor, Tye Sheridan, playing the kid who seeks guidance: but the similarities stop there. The best way to describe Joe is by calling it a Southern Gothic tale; the Southern Gothic genre usually shows the derelict south and how the decay of society leads to grotesque situations. And the Nicholas Cage vehicle explores the deepest and darkest aspects of this small southern town, in which the grounded reality of the picture gets lost in the hellish imagery established by David Gordon Green.
Everything about this picture is bleak: right down to the actual anti-hero Joe. And as viewers watch this nightmarish version of the south, there are very few pauses that allow any sense of calm. And though I usually love the exploration of despair, I could not help but feel that this was just a little too much. For instance, the movie starts off with a voyeuristic conversation between the boy and his drunken father, which ends with the dad beating the child. And even the film’s plot points have allegorical meanings that allude to the eroding society. For instance, Joe (Nicholas Cage) makes a living by owning a company that poisons trees; the movie explains that this illegal act is popular in the south because lumberjacks cannot remove the trees unless they are dying.
Obviously, this heavy-handed storyline reflects the titled character reverting back to his primal state or even the outcast Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his crippling relationship with his consistently drunk father. But this intense storyline contains extremely graphic violence, which makes the viewer question the point of the picture: several times I wanted to stop the movie because the imagery left me despondent. Yes, the sight of a dog licking blood of his lips or the drunk father Wade (Gary Poulter) viciously beating a man with a wrench is effective, but I quickly became numb towards the morally decrepit characters that inhabit the world of Joe.
But there is a silver lining when talking about Joe; David Gordon Green’s direction places him back on my list of most anticipated directors. Back when he directed George Washington and Snow Angels, Green was seen as the next ‘up and coming director.’ But his venture into vulgar comedies left many, including myself, collectively scratching our heads; I love Pineapple Express but Your Highness and The Sitter felt like movies from a hack director.
Meanwhile, Green’s choices in Joe reflect a director that has confidence and a vision. His balance of ambient and artificial light tells a story by itself; the grungy look of the whorehouse and bars feel like a fever dream. The nightmarish lights contrast the exuberant beauty of the outdoors: something that offers a glimmer of hope in this overly depressing universe. However, as the movie steam rolls to its climactic conclusion, even the beauty of the outdoors disappears to remind the viewer of the hopelessness: a theme that is already forced upon the audience enough.
With that said, the acting is the highlight of this picture, and surprisingly, the best performances come from first time actors who brought a sense of authenticity to Joe. David Gordon Green has a habit of using locals in his pictures: in fact, Gary’s drunk father, Wade, is played by a homeless man that Green found on the street. And him, along with some of Cage’s workers feel natural in this southern setting; dare I say, even their looks match the previously mentioned Southern Gothic description. In comparison to these first timers, Cage’s performance suffers because it sounds like he is reading from a script, which results in a performance that ranges from wildly mediocre to efficiently chilling: but lets face it, Cage at his worst is still more entertaining than most actors. On the other hand, Tye Sheridan perfectly plays the naïve Gary; however, it feels that he had a lot more to do in last year’s Mud. Obviously, Gary’s story parallels the loss of innocence that Joe suffered, but the young character is used more as a plot device and lacks full development.
As anyone could see, this is a well-made movie, but the lack of a moral compass results in two hours of monstrous people doing grotesque things. And as the movie progresses, it becomes clear that Joe’s undiagnosed bipolar disorder and alcoholism produces a character with way too many demons: the worst part is that the picture consistently tries to get the audience to root for this seemingly despicable ‘hero.’ Everyone glorifies Joe, but he has to be the world’s worst role model for Gary.
Yes, he teaches the kid the necessity of hard work for pay, but Joe’s professed love of hurting people reveals a deeply disturbed man who happens to have influence over a child. If the writer wanted me to root for the title character, he has to have a redeeming quality or show that Gary can at least see the error of Joe’s ways. But in the end, there is no satisfaction out of this relationship; the finale has Cage’s character heroically helping the kid, but the audience questions the cause of Joe’s violent tendencies: is it the surrounding environment or is it in his nature? And the lack of an answer results in the overall productfeeling hollow. Yet, for some reason I admire Green’s effort: this dark seedy southern world will haunt my memories for years to come.
Sad Tidbit: Several months later, Gary Poulter, the homeless man who played Gary’s father Wade, was found dead on the streets of Austin.