David Gordon Green is a talented director who has made some incredibly poetic dramas, as well as some hilarious comedies. But when he fails, he fails epically and spectacularly. For every All The Real Girls, there’s an Undertow. For every Pineapple Express, there’s a Your Highness. His latest film, Joe, is a return to the dreamy Malick-esque landscape of his excellent debut, George Washington. But this Southern Gothic story is overwrought and, despite its beautifully decayed deep South setting and flawed characters who might be interesting underneath all their angst, is actually kind of boring. The film also attempts something like a McConaissance for Nicolas Cage, a skilled actor who over the past decade has favored appearing in C-level comic book movies and exploitation action flicks over actually acting. Sorry, Nic, but Joe isn’t going to be your Killer Joe.
Cage plays the title character, a sad, brooding man (with a cliched heart of gold hidden beneath his burly, aging physique) who takes a crew of African American workers out each day to poison trees. He’s friendly with his workers, but there’s an element of overseer to his role, clearly still a part of the modern-day Southern landscape. They are helping out a lumber company that can only cut down trees that are dying, hence the poison. Joe has a bottle of whiskey in hand most of the time, whether he’s driving home or watching the weather forecast on TV, reclined on his dingy house. He has a love/hate relationship with his dog, as well as the local whorehouse, and he’s generally sad. Also sad is Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old boy with a raging alcoholic of a father who beats him and his mother. Gary finds work with Joe’s crew and, you guessed it, Joe becomes his surrogate dad. Gary’s real father is played by Gary Poulter, a homeless native of Austin who tragically drowned last year in a lake. His real life travails have rendered him authentically crusty and decrepit, one of the many non-actors who lend the film an almost documentary feel at times.
Green and cinematographer Tim Orr pack each scene with beauty and lyricism, as the camera and coloring reveals the hidden beauty of a dilapidated house or garbage-strewn train tracks. Green is less concerned with having the film’s scenes propel the plot than lending to the dour atmosphere. Scenes play out like a series of surreal vignettes, for the most part, until they begin to build up to the film’s violent climax.
This works for a little while, but ultimately becomes a bit plodding, especially given the almost two-hour running time. Joe waxes philosophical as he battles his demons, both inner and outer—the bad guys here are Gary’s father and a crazy drifter who Joe slapped around in a bar and is now out for blood. Cage is certainly game to go the distance emotionally and physically in this role, swirling both deep sorrow and boiling anger behind his eyes, but his performance could use a little more subtlety. Sheridan, on the other hand, shows real promise, as he did in Mud, a movie that has some similarities with this one.
Joe may not be his best work, but it’s certainly nice to see Green taking a break from comedy and sinking his teeth into his type of material again. Unfortunately, this fugue-state film does not deliver the emotional punch it presumes to have, and is a flawed, if sometimes beautiful, work.
Director: David Gordon Green
Writer: Gary Hawkins
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Release Date: Apr. 11, 2014