2014 DIFF Film Review: ‘JOE’ – A well-acted but violent backwoods noir worth seeing for a return to form by Nicolas Cage

joe-poster-nicolas-cage-david-gordon-greenFilm review by: Gordon K. Smith

Cross last year’s outstanding MUD with a redneck TAXI DRIVER and the resultant offspring might be something like JOE (no relation to the 1970 cult fave), a well-acted but violent backwoods noir worth seeing for a return to form by Nicolas Cage, after years of gimmicky action flicks.

Cage  gives an edgy, intense, and sometimes hilarious performance in the title role, a loner ex-con with a fondness for hookers, booze and guns who makes a living as the foreman of a tree-poisoning detail (and if that’s not overtly symbolic enough for you, there’s a jaw-dropping, literal dog-eat-dog scene).   Asking for work one day is a 15-year-old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan practically reprising his character from MUD, with the same natural presence).   Gary’s eager to make some money to replace that pissed away by his alcoholic, ornery and often homeless father Wade (a extraordinary Gary Poulter, more about him later).  Wade tries to join the team, too, but doesn’t last long.   Gary’s young determination and integrity compels Joe to reconnect with his own humanity; when Gary gets mixed up in some of Joe’s longstanding personal battles and old grudges,  Joe ultimately has to take a stand. And when anyone takes a stand in most current movies, that inevitably involves gunplay – judging by most recent movies in a rural Southern setting you’d easily get the impression that rural Americans don’t know how to settle a score any other way.

JOE is atmospherically directed by David Gordon Green, an Austin-based director and screenwriter whose previous work runs the brow gamut from high (SNOW ANGELS) to low (PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS), here working from a screenplay by Gary Hawkins based on the novel by Larry Brown. Green shot the film in and around Austin, including the dense thickets of Bastrop for the woodsy scenes.  The city is not mentioned in the film, however, with only “Service County Texas” appearing on a few police cars as anything specific; the setting is pure Southern Gothic.

As he’s done frequently in his more serious efforts, Green cast locals in supporting roles, some of them non-actors, to good effect.  When I first saw Poulter as the nasty abusive dad, I thought “whoever this actor is, he’s giving a completely convincing performance”.   Here’s why – Poulter was a real homeless man recruited from the streets of Austin, which is where he sadly returned to die two months after filming concluded. So realistic is he that it adds to the film’s increasingly grim and dark tone (it’s hinted that Wade sexually abused Gary’s little sister, adding to Gary’s turmoil – that could have been clearer).  It’s Cage who keeps you engrossed here, and it’s great to see him in a character role not that far from his Oscar-winning LEAVING LAS VEGAS one; his moments as Sheridan’s surrogate father/big brother are funny and moving (except for the bit where he teaches the kid how to drink while driving – a bad idea, and a real sour note).   Welcome back, Nic.

JOE plays Friday, March 4 @ 7pm at the Angelika Theatre at the 2014 Dallas International Film Festival.  Go to dallasfilm.org for more information.

Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Screenwriters:  based on a novel by Larry Brown, Gary Hawkins
Producers: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Christopher Woodrow
Cinematographer: Tim Orr
Production designer: Chris L. Spellman
Music: Jeff McIlwain
Editor: Colin Patton

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