Joe is a return to maturity for director David Gordon Green, although this is not necessarily the same as a return to full form. Recently, he set his sights on a duo of pot-addled comedies centering a drug most appropriate for viewing Gordon Green’s earlier art films (the first of the two also aped the visual style of Green’s poetic examinations of humanity to fascinating effect), followed by an even more insipid comedy that had nothing to do with weed. He had lost his way. Now, the once-beloved indie director has seen it fit to grasp for his old critical darling status by returning to low-and-slow character drama and natural earthen beauty.
In the transition, he’s lost a certain peculiar magic, and the finished product seems more like a Green impostor that only understands Green on the surface. But then, surface-level Green is a hell of a lot better than most films, and certainly a gargantuan, lurching leap above his recent 2010s comedy ventures. Joe doesn’t have the Midas touch, but it doesn’t need it. It’s a damn fine social realist drama, and I for one am never too curmudgeonly to bask in the glories of a nice social realist stew.
Discussing the plot of a Green film misses the point – he’s squarely of the Malick school, and is more transfixed by minutiae than event or narrative. There’s a shoelace here – a young boy played by Tye Sheridan (who seems to be stacking out a claim for himself by appearing only in esoteric character dramas which define character through earthen hues and visual melancholy) meets middle-aged Joe (Nicolas Cage) and finds work under him in the frigid, deadened forests of the poverty-stricken American South. Joe develops a fondness for the boy, but the older man’s ex-con past quickly readies to get in the way of any burgeoning redemption for the former rabble-rouser.
It’s hard to miss the sub-Gordon Green aesthetic of the film, which owes more to modern Gordon Green imitators like Winter’s Bone and Mud (again, I’ll take imitating Green over most things). His camera lingers and finds beauty in the hard-won souls that inhabit the oppressively empty backwoods limbo of the film’s morality play. A chill runs down the spine of the camera, itself operating more like an ever-observant narrator that refuses to speak with words. It’s a slow, thoughtful film about consequence and decisions that aren’t so much “made by people” as decisions that “happen to them” while they sit back and watch their lives float on by.
But Joe is as much a welcome home for star Nicolas Cage as it is for Green. Cage, who is at his best and worst when constantly on the edge of self-destruction, plays against type as a man who holds in his emotions rather than letting them lose onto an unsuspecting society. It’s a quiet, non-event of a performance, perfect for the deadened character, and opposite the normal “Nicolas Cage” role we all expect. Typically he is only ever this mundane in tired, divested blockbusters, but this particular film is all about humanity at its most divested.
There are other fine, lived-in performances aplenty – Sheridan is good as ever, and the elderly Gary Poulter gives a heartbreaking turn as an elderly alcoholic that bleeds reality and fiction (Poulter, who was found dead before the film was released, was in real life homeless and alcoholic during the film’s production, and he had no formal acting talent). But Cage absolutely commands the screen whenever he appears, swallowing up the film around him in perhaps the only performance he’s given in ten years to truly submerse itself into a character (his best film during that time, Bad Lieutenant, didn’t want him to be a character as much a walking Nicolas Cage freak out delivery vehicle, and is thus a wholly different story).
It’s an altogether strong film, well scripted, intuitively directed with an eye for the mojo of location, and potently acted. It’s just not great – the whole things feels a little modern social realism by numbers and Green’s focus gets muddied under the meandering narrative from time to time. Ashamedly, it also lacks the wild-eyed full-submersion into the poetic abstraction of a true Malick devotee. However, it’s still a nicely fleshy, tactile film that makes us feel its motions down to its bones. It doesn’t see its director at the top of his game, but the once-most-fascinating-voice-in-American-cinema merely making a “pretty good” film still means a “pretty good” film in the end. And there was a point a few years ago where none of us thought this particular voice had a good film still in him. He’d been seduced by the dark side. Joe sees his return to the safety of the light. Now he just needs to add a little darkness back in.