DIR David Gordon Green • WRI: Gary Hawkins • PRO: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng, Alexander Uhlmann, Christopher Woodrow • DOP: Tim Orr • ED: Colin Patton• DES: Chris L. Spellman • MUS: Jeff McIlwain, David Wingo • CAST: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Many great American films could be classified as Southern Gothic, but whatever the reason the last few years in particular have seen an explosion of films from the US focusing on the rural Southern states and their inhabitants. You have Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud, Winter’s Bone, Killer Joe, Hide Your Smiling Faces and more besides – very different films, but all memorably and proudly Southern. To that list we can add Joe, David Gordon Green’s hasty follow-up to Prince Avalanche.
This isn’t new geographical territory for Green. His still remarkable debut George Washington was set in North Carolina, and several of his subsequent films also affectionately portrayed life in the South. Sadly for fans of these films, Green’s incredibly promising early career was interrupted by his work on a trio of dumbass comedies that could generously be described as varying degrees of shit (although not without their fans). While no doubt there were reasonable motivations behind this bizarre shift in directorial direction, for this viewer at least Green’s return to smaller, character-based dramas – and, not coincidentally, the Southern states – has proved something of relief.
Like Prince Avalanche, Joe takes place in rural Texas. Like the earlier film’s haunting use of destroyed woodland, the setting here is one of its most valuable assets. Plot-wise, there’s not a whole lot going on in Joe you haven’t seen before, but Green manages to maintain an uneasy, even surreal mood.
Joe (Nicholas Cage, in one of his occasional excellent performances) is a man with a colourful history with the law, but seems to have settled down. He runs a tree-poisoning business, in which and he and his men prepare stubborn trees for timber companies. He lives alone, albeit with the occasional casual visit from Connie (Adriene Mishler). Joe being Joe, though, peace is a challenging state to maintain, and a disagreement he had in a bar with an aggressive local (Ronnie Gene Blevins) threatens to escalate. But it’s the appearance of young Gary (Tye Sheridan), who has is looking for work for himself and his father Wade (Gary Poulter). Gary proves to be a hard and loyal worker, and Joe takes him under his wing. Wade, though, is cruel, lazy and abusive, and as is to be expected this starts to cause some problems.
This is Southern Gothic turned up to eleven, and sometimes to the point of near parody. Joe’s world is an incredibly grimy, miserable one. Violence, substance abuse and prostitution of an almost Old Western sort are commonplace here. It might not be pleasant, but it sure is atmospheric. Muted but moody cinematography further emphasises this powerful sense of place.
It could, in less skilled hands, come across as almost exploitative in its stylistic exaggeration of an impoverished community. That’s a line individual viewers might feel is crossed at times. But Green lends a strange empathy to proceedings, and a respect and understanding of a lifestyle most of us aren’t familiar with. This might be a gritty thriller featuring violent characters committing violent deeds (or, in the protagonist’s case, trying desperately not to), but Green takes the time to carefully portray the daily rhythms of the poor but proud people too. It’s far from a romanticised portrait, but it can be a quietly affectionate one. That ensures things don’t descend into the ‘hicksploitation’ realm – well, at least for the most part.
As the title indicates, Cage’s Joe is very much the centre of attention here. Cage, I think it is fair to say, isn’t always a fan of subtlety (even in some of his best performances), but here his distinctive style works very well indeed. He plays Joe as a man constantly on the edge of exploding, and largely articulates this through body language and gestures. On the occasions when he does blow up, Cage’s familiarly wild acting style is a perfect fit for the fits of rage that follow.
Even then, however, there’s a powerful sense of regret and frustration in the character, as if he is trying with everything he has to keep in control. Although there’s a fundamental goodness about Joe, he’s just as likely to act indifferently or even cruelly to those he’s closest to. He might not always be a traditionally likeable protagonist, but he sure is a compelling one, and it’s not hard to buy into the deep-rooted respect many peripheral characters have for the man.
Cage’s stylised, powerhouse performance cannot help but dominate proceedings, but he’s capably backed – particularly by Tye Sheridan as the young Gary. Amazingly, though, there is something of a match for Cage’s typically bold performance, and that’s from Gary Poulter.
Poulter – who died last year while living in a makeshift campsite for the homeless – had never acted before (bar a role as an extra on TV), and had been diagnosed as bipolar. His life was equal parts wild and tragic – and that carries over here in an utterly unique performance that could only have come from a non-professional actor. Once again, there’s the threat of exploitation here, especially given Poulter’s own life story and its sad conclusion so soon after the film wrapped. But it is hard to deny the performance is fascinatingly raw, further enhancing the film’s memorably chaotic atmosphere.
Potently chaotic though the film may be in many respects, the actual story that drives it is largely lacking in surprise. The surrogate father-son relationship that develops between Gary and Joe is as familiar as they come, while there’s no doubt whatsoever everything is building up to a violently melodramatic conclusion. When that comes, it’s a dispiritingly familiar punctuation mark. But the performances and direction allow Joe to overcome some of its limitations. It certainly is ridiculous and exaggerated at times, but that helps make for a combustible cocktail of hyper Southern Gothic.
16 (See IFCO for details)
Joe is released on 25th July 2014