Being a fan of horse-faced over-actor Nicolas Cage is a frustrating business. He never gives a performance that isn’t worth watching, which means that you have to sit through countless hours of untold mediocrities in the hope of watching him “lose his shit”- or better yet, give a performance that reminds you of what a good actor he could be if given the right material, something which hasn’t materialized since the one-two punch of “Kick Ass” and “Bad Lieutenant” in 2010. Several critics have described “Joe” as a reminder of what a good performer he can be, and yet whilst its far better than his past couple of years work (I have borderline masochistically sat through “Trespass”, “Stolen”, “Seeking Justice” AND “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance”) his performance here is far more restrained than we’ve come to expect, and Cage is the only actor for whom a more reined-in performance works against them. If we are going to a Nicolas Cage movie for any reason, it sure as hell isn’t for restraint.
Cage here stars as the titular character, which may be the biggest problem- the film is called “Joe”, and yet the story is predominantly told from the point of view of 15 year old Gary (played by Tye Sheridan, best known as the main character in last year’s “Mud”), who adopts Joe as his role model. The story opens with Gary heckling his drunken father, leading to a slap around the face that’s movie shorthand for “broken home”. When we do see his family home, it seems like the production designer must have been looking at photos of Kenny’s home on “South Park” for inspiration as what a true lower-working class house looks like. After his family call him a waste of space and that he should get a job, he goes to the nearby forests where Joe and his team work every morning, and soon is taken under his wing. From there, the story gets rather distractingly formulaic; the joys of the early stretches of the film are that it is unburdened by narrative, instead letting us openly hang out with Joe and his quirky fellow foresters- even when reined in, Cage manages to out weird everybody on screen, whether being introduced holding a rattlesnake in his hands and calling it his friend, or later shouting at a dog that he believes is an “asshole”. Sadly, narrative demands that a feud between biological and adopted father figure must materialize, and the film gets far less interesting incredibly quickly- which is remarkable considering that this is when Cage starts to wake up and go a bit bonkers.
The film is something of a stylistic comeback for director David Gordon Green, here returning to his arthouse, Terence Malick-inspired roots after spending the last few years directing increasingly poor comedy movies. Sadly though, instead of an organic return to form it seems more like a self-conscious return to his initial directorial house style after a few years on the receiving end of negative reviews for his comedy efforts, which means the film didn’t really interest me as much as either his early work (his 2000 debut “George Washington”) or even some of the comedies he’s directed. For all its faults, “Pineapple Express” is probably my favourite thing he’s done, and by saying that statement out loud, I will surely find myself banished by any critical community who would be willing to have me join.
It should also be mentioned that Gordon Green has returned to his roots in terms of how the film was cast, with a mix of professional and non-professional actors on screen. The actor playing Gary’s father (who repeatedly and unashamedly refers to himself as “G-Daaawg”) was a real life homeless man, whose own illness stemming from alcoholism fed into his performance here. Due to his untimely death last year, this remains his only on-screen appearance, and it is highly mesmerizing- despite the uninteresting material, he, like many of the characters, feel like flesh-and-blood creations who could conceivably exist outside of the film itself, so realistic they are in the representations of their ways of life.
“Joe” is a film that I wanted to like far more than I did, not least because it’s giving a talented actor and a talented director a chance to prove their worth- it’s just a shame it all seems so forced, without the naturalism that has fed into their best works.