While he's delivered great performances in several films over the past few decades, and even won an Oscar for his brave, unflinching portrait of a suicidal alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas" (1995), it's been several years since Nicolas Cage has been able to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.
Ever since he starred in Neil LaBute's horrendous remake of "The Wicker Man" (2006), Cage has been known to star in "so-bad-they're-good" films; delivering wildly over-the-top performances that, nonetheless, are so intensely committed in pictures that are so unworthy of his idiosyncratic talent.
This is why I'm happy to report that in "Joe," the latest film from the eclectic David Gordon Green, Cage delivers his best performance since Spike Jonze's "Adaptation" (2002), and for once the film is worthy of his undeniably unique charisma.
Cage stars as the title character, an ex-convict turned lumberjack who spends his days poisoning trees for a lumber company. Haunted by an ambiguously violent past, (which is effectively conveyed through Cage's subtle, nuanced portrayal of a broken man), Joe guzzles down hard liquor and sleeps around with a variety of prostitutes as a way of attempting to block out the pain of his personal history.
One day Joe is approached a persistent fifteen-year-old boy named Gary (played by the immensely talented young actor Tye Sheridan) and his abusive father, Wade, both looking for work. After taking Gary under his wing, Joe begins to bond with the troubled teenager, who's determined to get him and his father out of their miserable life of poverty, but is consistently damaged by his own parent's streaks of anger and violence, ultimately being forced to depend on his own sense of rage through similarly destructive behavior in order to survive.
However, when Wade's alcoholism fuels his temper to the point of becoming life-threateningly vicious towards Gary, it unleashes Joe's inner demons to the point where he himself becomes violently unhinged in order to protect the boy, setting off a chain of events that places everyone's lives in grim forms of jeopardy.
"Joe" is not just a return to form for Cage, but for director David Gordon Green as well, whose independent films, "George Washington" (2000), "All the Real Girls" (2003), and "Snow Angels" (2008) were gorgeously intimate gems that, although receiving high praise from critics, remain highly underappreciated by the general public. He then went on to direct the hilarious stoner-comedy smash-hit, "Pineapple Express" (2008), but followed it up with two critical and financial bombs, "Your Highness" (2011) and "The Sitter" (2011).
Last year's poignant "Prince Avalanche" (2013), though, showed promise of Green returning to making smaller indie films more focused on creating themes with a consistent tone, realistically flawed characters and cathartic emotional payoff, and "Joe" has delivered on this potential.
From its vivid opening scene, Green composes a dark, brooding atmosphere from its Southern gothic setting, providing the film with an appropriate feeling of dread. He films everything from his character's poisoning of the trees to a powerfully orchestrated robbery with a raw, consistent sense of menace that finds rare moments of beauty amidst the often ferociously gritty outcomes of his story. There are hints of everything from Terrence Malick to Gus van Sant in terms of Green's influence in style, but they're always authentically portrayed through his own, distinctively confident voice that feels appropriate to the story.
As Joe, Cage conveys loneliness and pain through some of the subtlest acting of his career. Everything from his worn-down posture to his heavy, remorseful eyes, Cage captures the melancholia of his character perfectly, and when his blood begins to boil at the sight of the abuse Gary's continually endures, he's able to create a sympathetic but altogether frightening portrayal of how anger can drive us to commit terrible acts, even when they're necessary in protecting the people we love.
Fresh off of last year's powerfully moving "Mud" (2013), which covered similar ground in regards to its depictions of violence and regret, Tye Sheridan gives another stellar performance as Gary, and proves that he's one of the finest young actors working today. Robbed of his childhood and being forced to look after his family following his father's alcoholism and abuse, Sheridan's fiercely driven portrayal of a teenager at odds with the world around him is achingly realistic outlook on masculine vulnerability. Motivated to protect himself and his loved ones through physical fights in order to prove his self-worth, Sheridan depicts the pain of growing up in a male-dominated world effectually, and has great chemistry with Cage when they begin to remind themselves of the small, undeniably potent feelings of joy they find through the small elements of life amidst their bleak forms of existence.
Gripping, powerful and meticulously constructed, "Joe" doesn't necessarily cover a lot of new ground when it comes to its messages of violence begetting more violence, but it's done so effectively, with terrific performances and such mature direction, that it feels indisputably fresh and alive. Its leisurely pacing, grungy subject matter and disturbing outbursts of violence will make it an uneasy sit for some audiences, but as a bold, relentless tale of spunk, friendship and redemption, "Joe" packs one hell of a cinematic punch.