Joe is not a good film. It has all the competency of a lackluster entry in a student film fest despite being made by a well seasoned director with more than ten years in the game. The director, David Gordon Green, has made a career out of passable dramas that have no unifying theme, look, or quality. Other relative newcomers, like Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast, Under the Skin), Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) or Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Anna Karenina), have made each of their films a personal statement. It’s as though you’re on a first date, and by the end of the entrée, you have a full sense of who’s sitting on the other side of you- pros, cons, it doesn’t matter. You have a sense of them, and that’s what counts. Having a personality is almost always preferable to the alternative, which is why it’s so ugly to see a director who can’t find an identity at all, much less one worth remembering. Green is the antithesis of Andrew Sarris’ auteur theory, which says great art must be of one prime and powerful leading vision. Joe is not that. Joe is anything but that. Joe is bland, hopelessly vanilla, and regrettably inoffensive. It doesn’t take a single risk and runs in the shadow of the many better versions of this story. Joe has only one saving grace, but it doesn’t save the film: the performances. Nicolas Cage returns to the indie, and the wait was worth it.
Green’s latest film is based on a 1991 southern lit novel of the same name, Joe. The title character, played by Nicolas Cage in his first serious role in what seems like a decade, is a thoroughly bearded, semi-alcoholic, loyal, violent, repugnant ex-con that we’re meant to believe has a heart of gold. He runs a shady company of tree killers, hired out by land owners to illegally kill old and useless trees so stronger ones can replace them. This is one of the film’s most obvious signs it’s an adaptation of a book: this offbeat line of work is a (literary-esque) metaphor for the story’s central conflict. Joe’s going along his way one cigarette, one bar fight, and one lay at a time until he meets a 15 year old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan, Mud) in the woods. He asks for a job, one he needs to support his penniless family. In one of the film’s most contrived attempts at stylization, the buildup to their meeting is a montage of the two characters in different settings but doing similar things; namely, using knives. It’s a bizarre introduction to the main emotional thrust of the picture, especially since neither this style of editing or the object become recurring motifs. Joe and Gary inevitably bond, and it becomes a surrogate father-son relationship.
Conflict is drawn from three places, of which none are convincing. Joe has continued clashes with the law after he assaulted a cop years before, and the boys do everything they can to put him back behind bars. They pull him over at all the wrong moments, and his short fuse makes things worse. The next is familial. Gary’s father is a comic book villain of parental abuse, an alcoholic redneck jackass who’s willing to hit, steal, and murder to get his next drink. Gary is habitually beaten for his hard-earned wages, and there’s a loose suggestion his sister was sexually abused (she has stopped speaking completely- a more likely warning sign of sexual abuse than of strictly physical violence). The father was played by Gary Poulter, a real life homeless man and father, and, heartbreakingly, he was found dead in a shallow body of water before the film could make its debut. Finally, in what could be called the villain, a greasy lowlife local hounds Joe for revenge.
Joe has all the ingredients of Winter’s Bone and Mud but none of the flavor. It follows all the obvious tricks of the indie without a single detour. There are ambiguous characters, ambiguous monologues, and a constant use of hard cuts to jolt the viewer into staying awake. Hard cuts become such an intrusion that you begin to wonder whether Green had any confidence his film could carry itself, and he had to contrive reasons for loudness. Look to a small early moment representative of the entire film. Its cuts from a quiet forest to the door of Joe’s truck intrusively springing into the sound mix ten times louder than normal. It’s a cheap trick that quickly tires, especially after its twelfth use. One wonders whether these embellishments came from post-production to hide moments Green realized don’t work, like the oddly edited moment when Gary pleads with his father to come to town but his father starts joking about break dancing instead. The last thing an audience should ask is, “Would that really happen?” Sheridan is a capable rising actor, he and Cage nearly save the film, but here he seems confounded on how to play the scene, and it shows. To add insult to injury, a forced synthesized score of moody tension is all the film can do to conjure any sense of atmosphere. This too fails.
Joe is overpopulated with moments that feel a key off, but it’s hard to know where to point a finger. Green’s direction is uninspired and obvious, but no less than the rookie characterizations. It’s hard to know whether the book’s author, Larry Brown, is to blame, or if Gary Hawkins (lots of Garys in this film) shrunk the characters into empty shells of their book counterparts. I haven’t read the book so I don’t know, but the film suffers from a pronounced absence of logic. Character motivations are worse than just obscure, they’re obtuse. Look at the ‘villain’ of the piece: cut up with scars, rotten teeth, long and greasy hair. Two seconds into meeting him, he inhabits every combative character trait known to man, and, I kid you not, before the scene ends, he even has a good ol’ villainy monologue. Oh, no--right after saying frightening things, he started laughing! Run for the hills, he’s manic! This is where his character begins and ends: a summarized cartoon of evil. Why is he this way? What does he want? In any course on writing, one of the first rules is characterization. Characters need reasons to do things. The villain’s impetus for wrongdoing goes as deep as his shabby costume. This is an overwhelming issue persistent from the first frame to the last, where characters get one (maybe two) characteristic and they act on it every chance they can. If a girl shows some leg, she’ll soon show more. If a man is shown as stupid, evil, or pushy, that is the one thing they will continue to be. Joe is a cult of simplicity.
It’s easy to say Joe is a better developed character, but it’s an illusion — a facade — facilitated by a complex and effective turn by Nicolas Cage. Cage doesn’t reach the nuanced highs of Adaptation (his career best), but seeing him do fine work once again is revitalizing. One wishes this is the start of a career refocus instead of a one-off fluke. Many forget Cage is a tremendous actor who merely revels in being bad, and, since he gets paid handsomely for it, who’s to blame him? He used to find a balance, one for the art (Matchstick Men) and one for him (Drive Angry), and I hope Joe is the first counterweight. Although he has a smidgeon more character traits to work with than his villainous counterparts, his character is no less of a caricature. Nevertheless, he holds the film together, convincing us he has a twisted code worth admiring. If it wasn’t for an absurd plot hole in the emotional finale, one that makes you wonder why anyone beyond the writing prowess of a first year creative writing student couldn’t think of a more logical way to get the same result, the performances might have made it meaningful. As it is, Joe is a superficial contrivance, and an utterly forgettable one at that.