An emerging trend we may be seeing in American independent film right now—a possible trend of which Joe would be the latest example—is the increasingly popular exploration of America’s rural south as a setting for interesting stories and unique, complex characters. Audiences surely must be getting at least a little bit bored with the number of movie narratives being set in Los Angeles or New York; there seems to be an interest in movies and television shows that are unabashedly set in locations unfamiliar to most viewers. What’s more, tales of the south that many outsiders would treat with condescending concern or outright contempt are instead being told by those who hail from the types of towns they depict on screen, resulting in films that don’t shy away from the complicated socio-economic conditions of these places while avoiding any sort of “poor them” mentality.
Director David Gordon Green comes from Arkansas, studied in North Carolina, and works out of New Orleans, so there’s little doubt that this area of the country is of special interest to him, and that sense of place is never more clear than in a work like Joe. The film follows two characters living in rural Mississippi. The first we meet, Gary (played by Tye Sheridan of Mud and Tree of Life fame), is a teenage kid looking for work to support his family, including his abusive alcoholic father. Together with Gary we meet our titular hero Joe, played by an uncharacteristically subdued Nicolas Cage. The two form a strange bond; Joe gives Gary a job, and Gary looks to Joe as a kind of father figure. Neither seems to be seeking out this arrangement, but they are nevertheless drawn to each other.
The casting for the movie could not possibly have been stronger. Let’s start with Cage. Known for his over the top style, a form of acting he frequently describes as “Western Kabuki,” as Joe he plays somewhat against type, but that’s also sort of the point. This character is one with a notorious history of violent outbursts, having been released from prison not long ago, and yet he has a strikingly soft heart. The sympathy he has for Gary compels him to help the kid out even when he knows he’s putting himself at risk in doing so. By the film’s end, it’s easy to see why Cage is the man for the role: Joe states several times how important it is for him to restrain himself, that personal restraint is the only thing keeping him alive. So it is with Cage. Nearly every opportunity he might have had to go big with this part, he subdues himself, plays it subtle, keeps it realistic, and exercises the same muscles of restraint in terms of his acting that the character himself must exercise against his violent impulses.
The same goes for Tye Sheridan. Here we have a fifteen-year-old kid starting to realize his own strength, and exhibiting the adolescent brashness that comes with that. His family is made up of forces at once repelling him and keeping him tied down. His father is openly abusive to him, sensing the threat his growing son poses to his unquestioned authority, but every time Gary gets ready to leave he can’t bear the thought of leaving his mother and sister behind to fend for themselves. The parallels may be less strong here, but Sheridan is excellent in capturing the youthful mix of confidence in his own ability to start to face the world head on and the utter fear of what further implications this entrance into adulthood will mean. As someone who shone with the help of great directors like Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, he has the confidence to take on a more ambitious role like Gary, but enough sense to trust his adult director to help him along.
The film itself is not one you glide through. Its pace almost seems like a weakness for the first act or two, but soon it begins to come together and make sense. It almost takes on the character of Joe in a way, in that it is clearly leading towards its climactic event but trying to hold off on it for as long as it can. Some reviewers would call this “predictable” and therefore disappointing, but it seems more in the spirit of the movie to think of it as a prolonging of what we are meant to think of as inevitable. Violence seeps out the pores of this movie, but like Joe’s quasi-legal lumber operation, rather than chopping down the tree, Green fills it with poison and lets it come apart all on its own.
Earlier this year audiences responded surprisingly strongly to Mud, a film similar in theme and in the involvement of Tye Sheridan, though different in just about every other way. It feels as though southern characters are longing for more complicated and well-rounded representations on film. If it can be viewed as continuing this trend that may or may not be real, Joe’s contributions consist of its unique feel that results from its sense of place combined with the richness of its principal characters. By the end, it reaches a place that is likely to be anticipated by its audience, but this only further captures the realism of some of life’s inescapable events.
Another strong movie from David Gordon Green, Joe makes beautiful use of its Mississippi setting and reminds us that Nicolas Cage can still do great work.