Joe review: the violence inherent in the system

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Joe yellow light

Nicolas Cage finally gets away from his shouty, cartoony madmen, but it’s hard to shake the sense that this was laboriously constructed around him as a showcase.
I’m “biast” (pro): I like Nicolas Cage when he’s taking acting seriously

I’m “biast” (con): I’m hot and cold on David Gordon Green

I have not read the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Booze and smokes and meanness. It’s what’s for breakfast. And lunch and dinner. This is what the men of Joe live on. And if a lad hangs around those men long enough, he will pick up some life lessons, like how to make hookers think you have money and how to abuse dogs while convincing yourself you love dogs and why the cops have it in for an ex-con and how to have “good” reasons to be violent, like if a guy asks if your sister is pretty. Then you can beat him up, and later you get to refer to him as “that guy I beat up by the bridge.”

By a remarkable coincidence, a lot of guys in this unnamed rural Texas town are named That Guy I Beat Up.

Oh, it’s all very masculine and mopey and miserable. Including the fact that 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) is learning his lessons well. He doesn’t much like his daddy, Wade (Gary Poulter), who is a useless old drunk — that’s Gary’s description, and it is extremely kind — but that hasn’t stopped him from internalizing unthinking reflexive violence as useful in many social situations. It’s sad and ironic that a better role model for him is Joe (Nicolas Cage: The Frozen Ground, The Croods), who’s merely on his way to being a useless old drunk and hasn’t quite arrived yet. Joe, we’re meant to understand, is trying to be a good man — and a lot of people say he is — but he keeps that dog he loves so much chained up outside in the rain (and he has obviously taught it to fight, too; yeah, even the dogs are violent here), and the best he can find to say to a woman is “I’ll try to be nice.”

(We never learn, by the way, what the women live on here, beyond a few hints: either a gal has to make her own birthday cake, or she has to become a prostitute. Mostly, women are absent, except as a distant, offscreen excuse for one guy to beat up another guy.)

Gary convinces Joe to give him a job on his crew, which is using hatchets and machetes and barrels of poison — nothing too ominous there — to clear a forest of stupid useless trees. “Nobody wants these trees,” Joe explains. “These trees are weak.” It’s very metaphoric. All these violent men, they are doing the clear-cutting through their world of abject poverty and ignorance from which, it seems, death is the only escape. Or maybe prison. Prison looks good compared to this. Except the inadvertent clear-cutting of weak men can never succeed, because they keep making new ones. Can Gary escape this fate?

Alas that Joe never really made me care. David Gordon Green (The Sitter, Your Highness) moves back to his Southern gothic roots — see George Washington and Undertow — with a film that is perhaps more overtly horrific than anything he’s made before. (This is far removed from the sweet oddball dramedy of his most recent film, Prince Avalanche.) As Gary’s vicious father, Poulter is terrifying, and his performance is remarkable, particularly as a nonactor — he was living on the streets of Austin when Green cast him, and has since died on those same streets. But it’s a senseless sort of terror: Wade is an all too realistic monster who commits unspeakable but all too mundane crimes, the worst of which we, the film’s audience, are the only witnesses to. If that’s meant to make us appreciate that Gary really, really does need to escape his home situation… well, we already had no doubt about that. The gruesome presentation of Wade’s violent excesses seems salacious. Sheridan, as Gary, is also very good… though he played a similar role in last year’s similarly themed Mud. (That plus the small part he had in The Tree of Life makes me worry that he is getting mired in arty meditations on male coming-of-age.)

The other inevitable comparison to Mud is that this represents — as the latter film did for Matthew McConaughey — a return to actual actorly form for Nicolas Cage. Here he finally gets away from the shouty, cartoony madmen he’s been blustering through onscreen for far too long; he has not been this compelling since his magnificent one-two punch in 2005 — nearly a decade ago — with The Weather Man and Lord of War. But the totality of the movie is nowhere near as rewarding as simply seeing Cage back on the job. It’s hard to shake the sense that Joe was laboriously constructed around him as a showcase, because little else about it satisfies.

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Thu, Apr 24, 2014 4:32pm

I’m really glad to see Cage becoming a bit less of a joke; as you point out, he’s done way better than his recent form indicates. Such a shame that it has to be in yet another, yet another film about What It Is To Be A Man. It means ya got dangly bits. Next?

Orlando Morales
Orlando Morales
Wed, Jun 18, 2014 6:58am

Ms. Johanson,
You completely missed the point of this film. Some people do live the kind of life portrayed throughout the film.Life can suck, and this is a bird’s eye view of just that. Prior to this film I was by no means a Nicolas Cage fan, but I’m now starting to reevaluate that. As a critic, you should take off your elitist feminist rose colored glasses or stick to reviewing Wes Anderson flicks.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Orlando Morales
Wed, Jun 18, 2014 12:01pm

Just becase a film depicts Facts A, B, and C does not automatically transform the depiction of those facts into a satisfying story.

Please explain what is elitist, inappropriately feminist, or rose-colored about my review.

reply to  MaryAnn Johanson
Wed, Nov 05, 2014 4:07pm

Yes i know this is a late response to your review. But i too believe that you missed some crucial elements. This is not some macho bullshit. This is a depiction of hard life and how people have to grow tough to live in it. I am sorry there werent enougj female characters in it for your liking

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  a
Wed, Nov 05, 2014 4:56pm

What “crucial elements” did I “miss”?