(It's been a while since our friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK, has been so excited about a movie, but he has graciously allowed us to post his very enthusiastic review of Joe, an indie return to form for both director David Gordon Green and star Nicolas Cage. We're always happy to include his posts here, and recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)
The backwoods of Austin, Texas. A place devastated by poverty & homelessness, and filled with an anger which can no longer be restrained. This is the setting for David Gordon Green’s naturalistic and excellent Joe, a film rolling out in a slow release in the US (and relegated to VOD elsewhere) but which deserves a wider audience.
Gary (Ty Sheridan), a 15 year old boy, lives in an abandoned and condemned house with his mother, mute sister, and Wade, his abusive, drunk father. Gary is quickly becoming a man, leaving the innocence of youth behind him as he looks for work to support his family and make something of himself. Whilst walking through the woods he stumbles across a group of men cutting down trees for cash; far from professional tree fellers, the men gather every day when the weather allows for it, as their leader Joe (Nicolas Cage) decides who gets work. Joe is a man they look up to and respect, and soon Gary and Joe forge a relationship which has long been missing in the boy’s life.
The subtlety of the screenplay from Gary Hawkins (his debut feature film script) allows the film to organically build a sense of hopelessness, making it clear that Joe, Gary, and Wade were on a collision course even before the film began. The film is is a masculine, aggressive, and heartbreaking study of a small group of men, isolate from the rest of the world and it moves at the pace of the location it's set in; slow, unhurried, and never rushed. This isn’t a film where each scene exists to progress the plot, but often exist to coax the audience into this real world.
The screenplay benefits from Green’s expert attention to detail and obvious affection for the setting. Naturalism seeps through in every scene, whether it comes from Green’s hand held camera work, never flashy or showy yet often strikingly beautiful (he clearly evokes a Malick-like quality in his love of nature, seen here and in Prince Avalanche and Snow Angels), or in the performances from all involved, from Oscar-winning Nicolas Cage to non-professional street performers like Gary Poulter (as Wade) or the entire African American crew who work for Joe. The grounded subject matter allows Cage to give his best performance by far since 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans (breaking a streak of 9 sub-par movies) and his most restrained since World Trade Center a year before. When the material is right, no one can touch him and I wouldn’t want to see anyone else in the lead role here.
Joe is, as you can gather, a firm favorite of mine this year. It’s a film which absolutely deserves to be seen and respected as much as Jeff Nichols’ similar Mud was last year, and I hope it begins a resurgence of Nicolas Cage’s career because he more than deserves it, and we deserve more from him. Joe is an excellent way to start.