[This is a re-post of my Joe review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Joe opens today in limited release.]
After watching Prince Avalanche earlier this year, I hoped that director David Gordon Green would continue with smaller, more intimate stories. With his follow-up, Joe, he has not only built on the palette-cleanser of Prince Avalanche, but also delivered one of his best movies. Featuring tremendous performances from stars Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan as well as a cast of non-professional actors, Joe is both compassionate towards its characters and non-judgmental towards their actions. It’s a story about men teetering between honest living and losing all restraint with their violent tendencies. Casually and with great subtlety, Green examines not only the inner struggle to maintain control, but also how much responsibility we owe to others and the limits of that responsibility.
Set in the Deep South, the character-driven story follows Joe (Cage) and Gary (Sheridan). Joe runs a crew of workers who poison trees on behalf of a company that wants to clear a forest, but can only do so if the trees are dying. Gary, struggling to deal with his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter) and support their family, gets a job working for Joe. As Joe and Gary begin to forge a friendship, they must avoid giving into their hatred for others as they deal with Wade as well as Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a violent psychopath with a grudge against Joe.
Joe is content to watch its characters live as they simply respond to the forces within their environment. Joe and Gary are hard workers, and while some would wonder why they don’t have any grand aspirations, they’re both looking for clean, honest lives free from those who would seek to bring out the worst in them. To say that Green is sympathetic to his characters would be the wrong choice of words because sympathy implies pity. It’s a demeaning word for two men who refuse to be victims. The challenge is in how they respond to their enemies, and if their choices will force them down to the levels of those who should be pitied.
Willie is the closest Joe comes to an outright “villain”. Even Wade, who does some truly awful things, is depicted with an air of pity. Poulter, an actual homeless alcoholic who sadly died after filming, is incredible in his performance. Even if Poulter drew from life experience, so do plenty of professional actors, and yet they would struggle to match the complex emotions Poulter draws from us. Green has the courage and the confidence to let Poulter shine as well as the other non-professional actors such as Joe’s work crew. Joe paints a world, and the non-professional actors help that world come to life.
While Cage and Sheridan are clearly the professionals of the cast, their performances are nonetheless incredible. Cage has built a reputation for being in silly movies that earn him the constant mockery of the Internet, but Joe is a reminder that audiences can never write him off completely. As Joe, Cage is restrained and quiet but always hints at the character’s criminal nature ready to re-emerge should he break away from the honest life he’s tried to build for himself. There’s no over-acting or material for memes. It’s one of Cage’s best performances, and Sheridan holds his own against the veteran actor. With only two previous movies to his credit (The Tree of Life and Mud), Sheridan has proved himself one of the most remarkable young actors working today. Even though he played another Southern teenage earlier this year in Mud, Sheridan’s work in Joe is distinct and played with far more anger, frustration, and desperation. We understand why Joe sees himself in Gary, and wants to save the teenager from going down the same dark path.
The darkness that permeates Joe isn’t done with great foreboding. It’s provided as a natural extension of a place where people depend on each other, but also put great stock in self-reliance. Joe will pay his workers even if they’re rained out, and he doesn’t mind helping friends learn how to properly cut butterfly steaks from a dead deer. However, when Willie shoots him early in the film, Joe doesn’t go to the hospital or file charges. He digs the buckshot out of his shoulder, and waits until he crosses paths with Willie again. Authority figures exist in this world, but they’re minor functionaries within it.
The trouble with this self-reliance is that the freedom provided fosters a kind of frontier justice when, as one of the characters notes, “there’s no frontier anymore.” Green recreates the “frontier” as closely as possible because he knows our values are trying to invade the roughshod world depicted in the movie. None of the locations are glamorous; there are no rich people. There are only the people we see trying to make their way through hard work, or they’ve just given up entirely and devoted their lives to ruining the lives of others. Green never forces the issues and themes beyond some symbols like Joe’s dog and the poisoned trees. The most important part is to quietly and respectfully look at the characters, and let their values make us think about our own. He has created a compelling drama, and commands our respect of the characters even if those characters question who among them deserves their respect.