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Review: Joe (2014)

Joe (2014)

Directed by: David Gordon Green

Premise: Based on the novel by Larry Brown. An ex-convict (Nicolas Cage) who runs an illicit logging business hires and befriends a fifteen year old boy (Tye Sheridan) who has a troubled home life.

What Works: Nicolas Cage has made a lot of really terrible movies over the last decade and his poor choices of material combined with his sometimes hysterical performances have turned the actor into a joke and an internet meme. Cage’s performance in Joe is a reminder that he was and is a very good actor capable of complex and nuanced performances. In the title role of this film, Cage plays a foreman who runs a cash business in which he recruits other ex-convicts to poison trees in wooded areas so that logging companies can then move into the area and remove the dead trees. He comes across a fifteen year old boy, played by Tye Sheridan, who lives in squalor with his family, including his alcoholic father played by Gary Poulter. Joe takes the young man under his wing and gives him a job. This is a movie about the bond between the young man and his mentor with Joe eventually having to choose between his obligations to the teenager and his own wellbeing. Those choices play out very effectively with the filmmakers allowing for a great degree of moral complexity among the characters. Joe is an impressive film in many respects but one of its most notable qualities is the picture’s sense of authenticity. This is a story that takes place below tobacco road and when filmmakers tell the stories of rural people they tend to do so condescendingly. But in Joe there is a frailty and a humanity to these characters, even the most evil of them, and the film comes across as an empathetic portrait of these people and their lives. Nicolas Cage is a recognizable Hollywood celebrity and in a story like this that could be a liability but the noise of his fame is muted in Cage’s performance. Actor Tye Sheridan had previously been seen in 2013’s Mud and he plays a similar role here and again he is quite good. Also notable in a supporting role is Gary Poulter as Wade, the alcoholic father. The way Poulter plays the role and the way the filmmakers stage his scenes are really impressive. Poulter is first introduced as a sort of sad drunk but as the movie continues he is revealed to be increasingly evil and a destructive force in the lives of his family members. But there is also a sadness about him and the other characters of Joe and that melancholy defines the movie.  

What Doesn’t: Although Nicolas Cage plays the titular character, Joe is really about Gary, the fifteen year old boy played by Tye Sheridan. However, the filmmakers keep their focus on Joe at the expense of Gary and as a result Gary’s story suffers. The teenager’s point of view isn’t given quite the treatment that it deserves. His family’s background is sparse; there is just enough information to orient the viewer and allow the audience to make sense of what they are seeing but there is a fair amount left unexplained. The film has holes in the background of its premise, like why child protective services wouldn’t intervene in the situation or how the family is able to live on a condemned property without anyone knowing. These flaws don’t sink the movie. In fact, audiences are unlikely to even think about these flaws until well after the film is over, which is a testament to how well Joe has been made. The film also includes a subplot in which Joe is at odds with a seedy criminal played by Ronnie Gene Blevins. The actor is very good in the role but it is unclear why the two men are at odds with one another and the conflict between the two men would benefit from additional plot beats.

DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, deleted scenes.

Bottom Line: Joe is a film that didn’t get much of a theatrical release but it deserves to be more widely seen now that it is available for home viewing. This film has a gritty style and some terrific performances, giving rising star Tye Sheridan a chance to shine and allowing Nicolas Cage to remind us why he became a star.

Episode: #505 (August 24, 2014)