Nearly 20 years since he won an Oscar for Ghost Rider 2: Spirit of Vengeance [subs plz check] Nic Cage is probably more infamous for chain-buying castles and a hairline more unstable than the Middle East than his undoubted acting chops. Bar the brief Recagessance of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans and Kick-Ass, the combination of a crippling tax bill and the world’s least discerning agent have seen Nic mired in the bargain bin of despair in 5USA fare like Stolen, Trespass and Justice.
And after a promising early career in which film festival favourites like All The Real Girls launched a pre-fringe Zooey Deschanel on a career path where she has consistently charmed moviegoers and critics alike (SHUT UP), David Gordon Green’s C.V. has taken a similarly dispiriting turn into tiresome stoner comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) and championing the fathomless comic appeal of Danny McBride. But with Joe, the two wayward talents have combined to create a dark, nuanced, thoughtful mini masterpiece.
Cage stars as the titular Joe. A rugged, brooding, outdoorsman with a drink problem, a plaid problem, a Brillo pad beard and the haunted expression of a man just back from a paintballing weekend that went south – he’s essentially Ray Mears without the sense of whimsy. Joe makes his living in deforestation – filling trees with poison so they can later be cleared. But is it just the trees that are filled with poison or is it also Joe? Throughout his career Nic has never shied away from a sledgehammer metaphor, reasoning that subtlety is like a Levellers fan: it won’t wash. And just to clear up any ambiguity he goes on to add ‘These trees are weak. They’re not good for anything’ before wrestling a snake because he’s not afraid to grab life, or his enemies, by the throat.
He takes under his wing 15 year old drifter Gary – the son of an abusive father with anger issues of his own, he becomes a surrogate son to Joe and the two immediately form a strong if slightly uncomfortable bond. Now a partially reformed ex-con, Joe is basically a decent man constantly battling to suppress the bubbling volcanic rage within, which could erupt at any moment like Mount ACTOR. Whilst trying to mentor Gary down the right path, events, and a local hick, inevitably conspire against him. Though the calm and monotony of everyday rural working life is punctuated with moments of sudden, shocking violence Joe counsels Gary that violence is the problem, not the solution, and that ‘restraint is the only thing that keeps me alive.’
It’s the relationship between these two leads which is the heartbeat of the film – Cage’s natural world-weary, curiously equine sorrowfulness being the perfect counterpoint to Tye Sheridan’s more idealistic dreamer. And Gary Poulter as Gary’s father Wade is terrific – a wretched and deplorable man, he flits effortlessly between extreme weakness and sickening aggression.
This being a Cage joint there are plenty of weird tonal shifts, baffling subplots, and disturbing psychosexual interludes. For instance Joe has a running vendetta against the dog at the local cathouse because, like Poochie in the Simpsons, he’s too proactive and totally in his face (’that dog is an asshole’). So naturally he chooses to set his own dog on it and kill it, whilst he directs a prostitute to fellate him with all the eroticism and sexual intensity of Ed Miliband reading aloud the cooking instructions on a bag of Quorn mince. This is then somewhat incongruously followed by a soft rock soundtracked montage in which Joe and Gary go on a drink-fuelled, laugh riot of a road-trip in search of the escaped Cujo, during which Cage riffs amusingly on his own Method skills by teaching Gary how to look troubled and mysterious in order to attract girls. And of course the bizarre career-long theme of Nic Cage Being Sexually Irresistible To Women continues unabated.
Otherwise though, the film switches seamlessly between illustrating the unrelenting drudgery, simmering ultraviolence and stifling masculine air of life in the Deep South, and isolated lighter moments of camaraderie and kindness.
An uncompromising, unsentimental, slow-burn character study, with a tough, unusually understated central performance and brilliant support, Joe looks set to herald the beginning of The Second Recagessance (until his next straight-to-DVD steamer).
TL;DR: he’s a lumberjack and it’s okay. 8/10.