There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
The inescapable consequences of our past is a recurring theme in a lot of great works of art. From the shadowy former life of the titular Great Gatsby to the transgressions of a thoughtless teen in Oldboy, the message seems to be that we may be done with the past, but the past ain’t done with us yet. A subgenre that shares that theme seems to be “the man who has put away his darker self to live a better life, only to be dragged back down into his baser impulses and revert to the monster he caged up long ago.” All these story elements combine in David Gordon Green’s Joe, which is both a return to Green’s former thematic interests as well as an exploration of a man who can barely keep the ugly brute of his former self at bay. After a decade in the wilds of Apatow-affiliated comedies, Green has returned to the desolation of the rural south. His newest film has an abundance of good elements, to be sure, but they are unfortunately overshadowed by heavy-handedness in its exploration of its themes and a climax that feels a bit like a cheat.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is an angry man who seems to constantly be at slow boil. He gets by running a tree-clearing business and is well liked by his employees, projecting an air of strength and authority. When 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) applies to work for his crew, Joe hires him and seems intrigued by this young man’s dedication to work. Meanwhile, Gary is just trying to provide for his mother and sister while his destitute father (Gary Poulter) scams and scrapes for booze and scraps, but always makes time to be an absolute monster to his own family. Joe and Gary get closer, but Joe is too busy burying himself in his own alcohol problems and cathouse shenanigans to be of much help to his young friend. If Joe can’t stop his own self-destruction, the film seems to suggest, can he at least save Gary?
As Joe, Nicolas Cage reaffirms (after a long dry spell) that he’s a potentially great actor, but one who performs to the level of the movie he’s in and the filmmaker with whom he’s working. Cage delivers a lived-in performance as the titular man who barely contains a seething rage at himself and the world around him, trying to get by without causing too many problems. Cage gets to occasionally indulge in some of the ridiculous lines and ludicrous behavior from the highlights in the Cage-canon like Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (for instance, insistently focusing on a Christmas decoration while getting blown in the whorehouse), but he mainly delivers a solid performance of quiet desperation. Cage’s Joe is just one of the many great performances by the entire cast. Also of special note are Sheridan, as the vulnerable young man hoping his soul will callus over enough to be able to survive, and Poulter, as the craven father who only escapes the bottle long enough to terrorize the family held hostage by his vicious selfishness.
Green and writer Gary Hawkins really shine in the film’s dialogue, capturing an authentic patter between the characters that matches the naturalism of cinematographer Tim Orr’s images. Green once again shows off his ability to find the desolate beauty in neglected parts of the country, whether it’s the people left behind or the scrap-littered fields in which they live. Unfortunately, obvious metaphors — poisoning the weak trees so they can be destroyed easier; an attack dog chained up under the house that viciously dispatches other dogs when unleashed — underline too much of the story and detract from the lyrical beauty found in the dialogue and cinematography. And a late character reveal in the film turns an antagonist from just being a pathetic if weirdly compelling shitheel into a monstrous villain that loses all nuance previously built. In fact, the film loses itself in that final act, chasing what feels like a forced climax in a film that was previously more interested in effectively building mounting tension.
We all have those sides of us that we try to hide or suppress; inevitably they come out. You can distract yourself with work, or drown in booze, but at the end of the day the face in the mirror is still there, complete with its sordid history and secret shames. Despite all the good we do, all of that work can be overshadowed by one awful moment — but, Joe seems to ask, is the reverse true? Can we redeem a lifetime of screw-ups with one selfless action? There are a great many things to like about Joe: the performances are compelling, the cinematography is gorgeous, and the dialogue and character interactions feel natural while retaining a poetic air. It’s unfortunate that so much of what works is buried beneath too-obvious analogies and discarded in favor of a standard potboiler ending. But despite all its flaws, it’s nice to be reminded of the emotional impact Cage and Green are both capable of as artists; let’s hope these reversions to form stick around.