I’m just going to get this out of the way from the off: I love Nicolas Cage. Always have. Always will. There is nothing anyone can do or say (and believe me, many have tried) to sway my opinion on an actor I’ve come to worship as a kind of bug-eyed demi-God. He’s a force of nature, a man capable of just about anything when given freedom to riff – with consequences ranging from the magnificent to the disastrous. A former icon whose recent career has left much to be desired, Joe is being touted as Cage’s return to form – and I’m delighted to say that he’s absolutely brilliant, although not in the way you might think.
This isn’t the kind of barn-storming, rage-Cage performance previously unleashed by the likes of Herzog and Woo. In fact, it’s a turn that could almost be considered grounded. Cage is practically docile as the titular Joe, a rough and tumble ex-con residing in the grime coated, dog-eat-dog world of a nameless community in the Deep South. The plot takes off when Joe crosses paths with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager dragged across the country by his drunken bastard of a father in a vain search for manual labor. It’s a tale of abuse and inherent anger, populated with bursts of brutalist violence and heated conversations on the constant verge of boiling over.
These melodramatic tales of grease-caked redemption are far from rare, but are utterly riveting when done right. A believable set of characters is a good start, but they are only as real and engaging as the world they’re put in. Director David Gordon Green molds and populates a living, breathing microcosm of damaged and dirty people born and raised in ramshackle houses and crushing humidity – anything can happen at any time. It’s reminiscent of the Old West, with violence an everyday occurrence and even the meekest of men keeping guns in their front room. Green and his set designers have done a magnificent job, stuffing each locale with its own ramshackle personality, refusing to scrimp on even the smallest detail in a feat of true cinematic dedication.
The characters receive their fair share of investment, too, with Sheridan and Cage particularly losing themselves in their roles. Green does a phenomenal job of reining his bearded leading man in – a feat many an accomplished director has failed – removing Cage’s usual ticks and placing him in decidedly unfamiliar territory. While his accent wanders and a couple of moments see him returning to old habits, this remains Cage’s best performance since Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant and his most measured one in living memory, his character constantly hinting at a broiling rage just beneath the surface rather than being allowed to shout for the whole film.
In spite of Cage’s conservative performance, Joe isn’t really a film punctuated with subtlety. Metaphors involving leashed pit bulls and deadly snakes are pretty much spelled out for you, but you don’t really approach this type of film looking for subtextual nuance, you look for big characters and flashing shows of brow-beating masculinity, and Joe delivers both of those by the bucketload. The film’s symbolism may only be skin deep, but the redemption at its heart goes beyond the celluloid – not only does Joe hint at a possible upturn in Cage’s wildly erratic career, it also sees David Gordon Green continue down his own road to absolution after a shaky few years of mediocre stoner comedies. Memories of The Sitter still smart, and All the Real Girls does seem very long ago, but Green’s is a career that feels distinctly on the mend.
Around this time last year (in fact almost to the day) I saw Jeff Nichols’ brilliant, dirt-encrusted fairytale Mud for the first time. It was the definitive chapter in Matthew McConaughey’s renaissance, the tipping point that truly brought him back in from the wilderness. Joe and Mud share a fair few similarities – both are Southern fried tales of violence and redemption, both feature incredibly mature turns from the young but charismatic Sheridan, and both filled me with hope for talents fallen on hard times. I’m not saying that Joe will do for Cage what Mud did for McConaughey, but maybe – just maybe – it signals a new beginning for a great talent who seemed intent on losing his way.
Its Southern fried tale of brutal violence and crippling rage may be somewhat familiar, but Joe remains a quality piece of cinema and a timely shot in the arm for Nicolas Cage's semi-wilting career.