Sunday, April 20, 2014


 3.5 / 5 

The forested, shadowy world Joe takes place in exists primarily in the movies.  It's a blend of film noir emotions and independent-filmmaking sensibilities, one the moves sleepily from scene to scene, allowing violent outbursts to crack through the thick air every once in a while before dropping back into its unhurried story.

For audiences used to movies that gallop from one plot point to the next, allowing a couple of lines of carefully written dialogue to denote character, Joe will be a challenge; I had to go back and watch a few scenes again, because the movie casts the kind of languid Southern Gothic spell that might lull you to sleep if you watch it at home from the confines of your living room.  This is not necessarily a criticism.

There is a plot in Joe, but it's a slim one and you have to work to find it.  Joe is the foreman of a group of workers who (Heavy Symbolism Alert) inject poison into trees to kill them so a big conglomerate can plant trees that are more lucrative.  "These trees are no good," Joe explains to Gary, an itinerant 15-year-old who doesn't as much live with his alcoholic, abusive father (Gary Poulter, who was an alcoholic and homeless when Joe's director cast him in this role) as much as he exists from day to day, place to place.  His mother is lost in a fog of drink and, likely, drug, while his sister has been so horribly scarred by something in their shared past that she no longer talks.

Gary asks Joe for a job, which he gets.  Joe is not the kind of person a 15-year-old boy should look up to as a role model, but Gary does anyway.  Joe doesn't want the attention.  He tries to shake off Gary's adulation, but can't help but notice that Gary's stitched-together life makes his own look practically opulent.  And Joe is hardly opulent.

He's a hardened criminal, in fact.  He's served more than a little time behind bars, including a prison stint.  He's in a seemingly endless feud with another local sleaze bag.  He spends his time in a run-down whorehouse or at the local bar where, naturally, the Confederate flag is hung prominently.

Gary comes and goes.  Joe comes and goes.  Some things happen.  There's fighting, some guns fire, people get hurt.  It's hard, or maybe not even necessary, to make it all cohere into a streamlined plot, at least until the final few minutes when everything begins to come together.

"What have you done, Joe?" is one of the final lines in the movie, and it serves as a kind of anthem-in-reverse for Joe's life.  This is not a man who has lived nobly, but Gary's puppy-dog determination to find a friend in Joe suddenly pulls all the various threads together.  Joe could make a difference to someone, but judging by history, he also has a pretty good chance of screwing it all up.

Nicolas Cage is quietly fierce as Joe, jettisoning the crazed eyes and wild hair that has, of late, passed for his style of acting.  Here, he finds his center again, delivering his best and most refined performance since Leaving Las Vegas.  He's confident but wary, infinitely tired of life but intrigued by the way the kid won't leave him alone.  Joe is not a good man, but Cage finds his goodness.

The only other professional actor in Joe is Tye Sheridan, who also starred in the rather similar Mud last year.  I thought that movie took its Southern-drawl pacing to the extreme; Joe finds a balance between the heat-laden junkiness of its setting and the need to keep things moving, however slowly.  Here, Sheridan has an even better role -- it may be a terrible chance, but Joe is his last one in life, and he's going to take it.

Noteworthy, too, is the mumbling, stumbling, viciously evil G-Daawg, played by Poulter, who died not long after this movie was made -- he fell face first into shallow water and drowned.  He was homeless and unable to care for himself.  That may make the real actor seemingly not too different from his character, but in G-Daawg Poulter finds someone who has taken the survival instinct to an extreme: he takes his son's wages then punches him in the face, he's an irredeemable drunkard and, in one shocking scene, a cold-blooded murderer.

And yet, pathetically, Gary stays loyal to him, at least until he finds Joe.  That divided devotion and the conflict it brings drives Joe to its effective climax, which takes place on a bridge over a Texas river on hot, sweltering night that's filled with the sound of insects and sirens, the way nights like that always exist in the movies.

Joe revels in that squalid, sluggish feeling, and gets it exactly right.

Viewed April 20, 2014


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