TIFF 2013: JOE Review

by     Posted 1 year, 100 days ago

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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 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.

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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 at one point, “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 have 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.

With Joe, Green has created a compelling drama, and he commands our respect of the characters even if those characters question who among them deserves their respect.

Rating: A-

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  • Liderc

    Wow, a Nic Cage movie with an A-? Must be solid.

    • RiddleThemThis

      I don’t know why you hate Nicolas Cage so, but I do know that I very much enjoyed him in films like Leaving Las Vegas, Adaptation, Matchstick Men & Bad Lieutenant.

      • Unique Jenique

        Also enjoyed Face/Off

      • GunzOfNavarone

        What about “put the bunny back on the box” ?

      • GunzOfNavarone

        *in. FFS.

      • RiddleThemThis

        There’s a lot of other great Cage films: Con/Air, Raising Arizona, Face/Off, The Rock, Lord of War, Bringing out the Dead, etc… I just listed the first ones that came to mind.

      • Tom

        You’re right. I also enjoy the movie you mentioned, but the he appeared in tons of terrible films. Good to hear that “Joe” isn’t one of them.

    • Colonel_Neville_Wraithchild

      more to the point, it’s an A- from Matt Goldberg. that in itself it’s quite an accomplishment.

  • Batman

    As much as I love the man I know his next movie is gonna suck (but he will be good in it) He really should be doing more of these movies. Hasn’t he paid back his IRS debt?

    • Jason Richards

      The problem with Nic Cage is that he’s a character actor that Hollywood has been trying to shove down people’s throats as a leading man for the past 15 years. The guy can turn in some pretty incredible performances when he chooses the right scripts and directors. Instead, studios throw big cash offers at him and he chooses them like any sane person would. It’s a shame many people look at that dude as someone who only does shit movies now a days.

      • RiddleThemThis

        According to Cage, hes wanting to go back to doing smaller films and really spend time choosing the right director and script for his future movies. Joe is one of those films, so here’s hoping for the best.

    • Unique Jenique

      He’s currently filming the movie “Left Behind” and is playing Rayford Steele. It’s a film based on the Christian books with the same title.

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  • Jay

    Cage might be making a return to form. Frozen Ground was okay, his performance was good. I wonder when this will be released. I look forward to it.

  • Jamesy

    The return of Cage, I’m excited…although I don’t think he ever left. He has movies like this, then The Expendables 3? Go back to good scripts please!

  • thatguy

    I’m a little afraid of this after Prince Avalanche. It’s not that it was a bad film, it just wasn’t a rewarding film. For my money, a movie doesn’t have to be “exciting” but it must have at least an emotional payoff. I got nothing. And frankly it was tedious and boring like a Wes Anderson movie without the straight faced aburdity. I do like Cage though so I will probably give Green another chance with this one.

  • Devin Garabedian

    100% agree with this review. Terrific film which builds on what Gordon Green accomplished with Prince Avalanche. One of my favorites of the fest this year.

  • Colonel_Neville_Wraithchild

    I like Nicolas Cage ‘s movies, i think he brings a special brand of crazy/weird to his characters that i just happen to enjoy.

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