A welcome return of Nicolas Cage Actor (as opposed to Nicolas Cage Lunatic Who Will Do Anything for a Paycheck) and another solid performance from Tye Sheridan (quick, get this kid in the Star Wars sequels…or something…so he can become the male Jennifer Lawrence and not keep getting typecast in Southern Fried Gothic Dramas) unfortunately don’t add up to much in David Gordon Green’s grim piece of poverty porn, Joe. Cage plays a partially reformed loner who takes a shining to Sheridan’s hard-working drifter kid with an abusive alcoholic father – but both characters struggle to put their pasts (and tempers) behind them leading to inevitable anti-hero tragedy.
Poor Joe, it had a lot going for it. Based on a fairly well-regarded novel of the same name by Larry Brown, it was to be a return to form for David Gordon Green – the former indie darling who had a nice (albeit unspectacular) streak going with George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow before selling out with mainstream stoner comedies. Green recaptures some of that old magic in certain scenes (the film’s opening is especially effective, as are many of the Cage – Sheridan interactions) while populating the film with Malickian cinematography of some nameless (and tirelessly decrepit) Southern town and non-actors in supporting roles riffing in aimless scenes that lead nowhere. There’s a fitting music score but also some poorly written and confusing voice-overs. There’s chilling layered irony (the man who played Sheridan’s revolting father, Gary Poulter, was a homeless man who died shortly after filming from drowning in shallow waters while drunk) juxtaposed with senseless wallowing in the muck (did we really need to see that Lee Daniels-esque and dimwitted scene in the brothel that ended with a dog eating another dog?) For all the naturalism Green tries to create, everything ends up feeling oddly forced and off-putting, even the “killing and planting trees as a metaphor for life” bit. The characters remain undercooked in their overripe setting, and many of the interactions and subplots make little sense and only seem to exist to set-up the violence of the final act.
Joe also suffers from an unfortunate case of “much of the same.” It can’t help but face comparisons to Jeff Nichol’s ironically more novelistic and memorable Mud which also starred Sheridan as another down-on-his-luck kid who latches on to a strange but compelling loner. Cage’s attempt at a comeback is eerily similar to the recent McConnaissance as Joe echoes both the sentimentality of Mud and the shocking brutality of Killer Joe – two superior works that knew their wheelhouses and struck the right tone – Mud appearing like a modern-day Mark Twain tale and Killer Joe being the darkest and meanest of comedies.
Joe wanted to be something nice, something emotionally resonant…a hopeful coming of age for Sheridan’s character in the wake of bleak redemption for both Cage’s character and Cage the Actor, but it can’t help but be gruesome, mean and shallow, even in all that pretty sunlight drenched scenery. It’s an interesting effort, but ultimately offers nothing new and leaves little to be admired despite the best efforts of its two leads and a director still trying to find his way back home.
Written by David H. Schleicher