By Tom Nixon
The days when David Gordon Green could aspire toward Terrence Malick’s gilded throne rode the Pineapple Express into oblivion long ago, but a return to more intimate regional territory indicates that he’s belatedly started to crave the starry-eyed New Weird Americana of old. Prince Avalanche offered refreshing idiosyncrasy from a filmmaker largely sandpapered down into a director-for-hire over recent years, although his inconsequential stoner-bromance inclinations and rusty tonal control remained to keep it grounded. Enter Nicolas Cage then, the ideal muse for a filmmaker at such a crossroads; an actor endlessly berated for his maniacal, soul-dancing turns and bizarre project decisions, always operating in the shadow of the rare “serious” performances footnoting an otherwise deliciously disreputable career.
Alas, we’ve seen Joe so many times before. Fathers and sons, inexorable cycles of violence, codes of masculinity, dog metaphors (oh man, the dog metaphors), clutter-strewn “poverty porn” milieu, non-professional supporting cast, a boy’s coming-of-age via the redemption of a father figure… it’s all here, and Green can’t make anything fresh out of it, though he attains a level of dread-soaked miserablism the Aussies would be proud of (itself a dubious honour). No, it’s up to Cage to spice up proceedings with his portrayal of the titular alcoholic ex-con — the kind of surly badass who, en route to the whorehouse, drops in at the home of one of his hardscrabble acquaintances to cut neat slices off the still-warm deer hanging from the ceiling. He knows exactly how to remove a bullet from his shoulder if the situation calls for it (which it definitely will). Snakes are his “friends”. He “likes to a see a man’s eyes” when they’re talking to him because, y’know, he’s a man’s man, man.
Joe is trying to keep his head down and make a (more or less) clean living, running an off-the-books team of labourers who accelerate the demise of dying trees with their poisoned axes, wielding them like Samurai swords. They only kill off the weak ones, the ones that “ain’t good for anything” — the South is “no frontier anymore“, after all, but a decaying, dog-eat-dog land of economic hardship where only the strongest will survive. Joe certainly has a wild dog within him, keeping himself on as short a leash as the brute of a hound guarding his home, responding with heroic stoicism to an escalating series of provocations from the various antagonists who disturb his peace.
Indeed, the best thing about Green’s film is the parallels between Cage and his character; both are men pressured by society into holding themselves back, and the fun is waiting for that leash to snap, watching Cage visibly reel himself in again and again in situations that call for his usual frenzy. When Joe’s girlfriend fantasises that he be a gentleman for once and take her out to dinner, there’s an amusing analogy with viewers who wish Cage would stop goofing around and treat them to some goddamned acting for once. (An enjoyable meta-sequence, meanwhile, where Joe teaches his surrogate son figure how to look cool — first: the “pain face“, then: “smile through the pain” — could just as easily come from the actors as the characters.) Personally, this writer would’ve liked to see Cage’s atypically restrained performance ultimately fly off the rails Vampire’s Kiss-style, but the film takes itself far too seriously for that, keeping in line with other contrived, painfully symbolic hype jobs like Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Jeff Nichols’ annoyingly similar Mud.
Mud starred Tye Sheridan too of course, and although he’s clearly got some talent, it seems he’s already being typecast; if Brad Pitt (The Tree of Life) and Matthew McConaughey’s shitty father figures weren’t enough, here his 15 year old Gary has two deadbeat dads to deal with. One is Cage’s Joe, who sees something worth preserving in the plucky, hard-working kid and accepts his request for a job, initiating a bond that will ultimately place him “on the fence” between redemption and ruin. The other is G-Daawg played by Gary Poulter: a bipolar non-professional discovered by Green at an Austin bus-stop, whose pitiful portrayal of Gary’s abusive biological dad is made more resonant by his untimely drug-influenced drowning just months after the film finished. Take the time to read the Austin Chronicle article about his ridiculous life story, which would’ve made for far more interesting viewing than the film in which he’s made his name.
Joe is the latest in a long line of recent American films to spend half their time convincing the viewer of their regional accuracy, and the other half making a mockery of the same. Such movies always seem to be set in the South, partly because the elemental environment provides a rich allegorical space for its characters, but mostly because unparsable salt-of-the-earth accents serve as lazy shorthand for “realism”. The African Americans who work under Joe are played by non-pros too, and their easy camaraderie convinces in and of itself, but the film has no interest in these people except as devices for ramping up the perceived authenticity of the white folks’ storyline. There’s one scene here between a drunk old “country motherfucker” and his boss which summarises how far into self-parody this particular inclination toward truthfulness has fallen, taking the cliché of poor people unintelligibly yelling at each other to its logical, ludicrous conclusion.
This would be tiresome enough as it is (been there, done that, got the unwashed t-shirt and crooked yellow teeth), but we’re talking about a film where the scarred villain yells catchphrases like “I went through a windshield and I don’t give a FUCK“, a film which provides its supporting characters with lazy line after lazy line (especially its women, treated so much like an afterthought it borders on uncomfortable), a film which explains all its key thematic dilemmas in a random mid-movie monologue, a film which contains every single stereotypical attribute of Southern poverty you could name. Joe would ironically feel more real, or at least less disingenuous, if it shifted emphasis to its genre elements; there’s a solid, character-driven contemporary Western (Southern, if you like) hidden in here somewhere, just like there was chilling noir in Winter’s Bone arguably cheapened by similar pretensions.
Joe opens with Gary chastising his father for perpetually failing to support his family, only receiving a thick ear in response. We’ve seen that before, but my favourite scene in the film acts as counterpoint, showing the mature-beyond-his-years Gary goofing around with his clearly drunk dad while demanding he gets up and do something for a change — affection and despair uneasily mingling together. It’s beautifully performed and, in a movie which piles on darkness and misery ’til it becomes commonplace, stands as the only genuine subversion of expectation, implying a deep well of complexities in an otherwise generic abusive relationship. Shades of grey are largely absent from the rest, however, with the final act in particular reducing every relationship into broad symbolic dichotomies and clearly delineating the heroes and the villains. The climax aims for the thundery bleakness, moral ambiguity and hard-earned redemption of something Clint Eastwood might’ve made, but Joe’s inevitable descent into violence is less transformative and frightening than a heart-of-gold, fatherly self-sacrifice; he’s only a really bad guy to those who deserve it, and for the sake of an innocent boy to boot. A mute child (groan) bears witness to the evil that men do and serves as the film’s conscience, but beneath all the gratuitous Godlessness Joe doesn’t have any real fangs — or human beings — to justify such gravity. For all its considerable flaws, at least Mud seemed marginally more aware that it was just another dorky fairy tale.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.