Review by David Watson
Stars Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Gary Poulter, Robert Johnson, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Brenda Isaacs Booth
Written by Gary Hawkins & Larry Brown
Certification UK 15 | US R
Runtime 117 minutes
Directed by David Gordon Green
Homeless and forced to drift from town to town, just barely surviving on the margins of society, troubled 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) tries to shield his beaten down mother and mute younger sister from his abusive, alcoholic father Wade (Poulter). Chancing upon a group of forestry workers while walking in the woods, Gary impresses their foreman Joe (Cage), who offers him a job. A volatile ex-con, Joe feels a protective kinship towards the youth, befriends him, offering guidance and providing a much-needed positive male role model, offering Gary hope and a means of escape. But a self-destructive rage burns deep within Joe who’s locked in a vicious feud with local psychopath Willie Russell (Blevins) and also heading for a showdown with the violent, amoral Wade.
Adapted from a 1991 novel by Larry Brown, the film exists in that hallowed Southern Gothic wonderland that white middle class filmmakers often worthily tour in search of the real, authentic America, a land of po’ white trash, grinding poverty and caricatured violent hicks with bad teeth, a world view that’s as real, authentic and predictable as that of students from Wokingham who smoke dope on a beach in Thailand on their gap year then claim to have experienced poverty.
So Joe gives us an all too familiar tale of poverty, violence, abuse and redemption shot in sickly browns that feels almost like a Wayan’s Brothers parody of hicksploitation (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints pull their Winter’s Bone Out Of The Furnace and dip it in the Mud) where Cage glowers and offers a gruff manly, father figure to Mud’s Sheridan (who effortlessly blows everyone else off the screen) dispensing life lessons and teaching him how to drink, drive, smoke and BE A MAN before a perfunctory climactic spasm of sexual predation and retributive violence that feels like it’s just wandered in from another film simply to offer Cage the chance to grab a gat and dispense some hot lead justice.
If you’ve read any of the inexplicably glowing reviews of Joe from last year’s Venice Film Festival, you’ll already know that Green’s slice of miserablist poverty porn is being hailed as a return to form not just for its former indie darling director but for its star, everyone’s favourite Elvis impersonator, Cage, and much has been made of Green’s "brave" casting of homeless alcoholic Poulter as a violent, homeless alcoholic. As a piece of stunt casting, this serves the film incredibly well, Poulter delivering a performance you can practically smell of such skin-crawling authenticity you’d swear he was actually, well, a real live homeless alcoholic. Which at the time he was, having since tragically drowned in a ditch while still homeless on the streets of Austin.
While Green’s last film, Prince Avalanche (an overly worthy remake of gossamer-light Icelandic dramedy Either Way), almost felt like penance for his years of stoner asshole comedies (The Pineapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter, Eastbound And Down), Cage has spent decades blowing his money on castles and tax bills while playing undead trick motorcyclists, witch hunters, villainous cyber-moles and melissophobics (“Not the bees! Not the bees!”) and badly needs both a hit and some credibility. Both obviously hoped Joe would be their Mud, a Southern Gothic parable that for Green says something IMPORTANT! while Cage obviously hopes it will inspire a McConaissance-like resurrection of his career fortunes.
But, hang on a minute? Do we really want a Cage McConaissance? He may have won an Oscar for his role as the world’s least fun boozehound in Mike Figgis’ downbeat Leaving Las Vegas (paradoxically, a movie I’ve only ever been able to watch while drunk which kinda runs contrary to the film’s themes) but no one really wants the actor who refers to his performance style as “Nouveau Shamanic” to reign it in and play restrained, play normal, do they?
We don’t watch Nicolas Cage movies for their realism, their authenticity or for their commitment to believable characterisation. We watch Nicolas Cage films because he’s a batshit-crazy, scenery-chewing cartoon with a commitment to ludicrous hairpieces. No audience really cares how sensitively he portrays an ex-con with rage issues or a soulful angel (City Of Angels) or a heroic firefighter (World Trade Center) or a lovelorn lottery winner (It Could Happen To You). We want the Nicolas Cage who punches the Devil in the face (Season Of The Witch), whose snakeskin jacket is a symbol of his individuality and belief in personal freedom (Wild At Heart), who fingers his mate’s wife with cocaine and paint-daubed fingers in a church confessional (Zandalee), who eats bugs (Vampire’s Kiss), who escapes from Hell in a muscle car (Drive Angry), impersonates Batman (Kick-Ass), deploys ludicrous accents (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Lord Of War) and rocks a mullet (Con Air).
We want the fun Nicolas Cage and, if we’re really being honest, a true Cage rebirth would mean more films like Drive Angry, more Jerry Bruckheimer action movies, more movies where he eats bugs or hoovers drugs. More movies with a mullet. And certainly less movies like his upcoming, apocalyptic, post-Rapture exercise in God-bothering, Left Behind. Ponderous, po-faced and largely aimless, Joe is a tawdry, vacuous wallow in poverty porn that gropes for a poetic significance it never finds and even sucks the life out of scenes like the one where Cage instigates a dog fight in a brothel for no real reason other than, hey, it’s the South! This film needed mullet Cage.