“…be nice until it’s time to not be nice.” – Dalton, Road House
Joe is a special breed of a movie for Nicolas Cage, and perhaps the greatest performance of his career. He’s an ex-convict turn straight shooter living in a small town in Texas. During the day he manages a group of folks who poison dead trees so the bigger bosses can come in, chop them down, and plant new, fresh ones. While not working, Joe passes the time drinking and visiting a popular whorehouse. It’s OK though, none of this gets him in trouble (except for when the law harasses him for no good reason, or a guy with a menacing scar sometimes shoots at him for reasons unknown).
In a lot of his films, we’ve seen Cage drive angry, fight people on airplanes, face off with John Travolta, fight crime in a costume, or look for sacred treasure. Here he’s an ordinary joe, with an ordinary job and just wants to live the simplest life as he can. An easy to please guy who wants peace and quiet. But, like we all do, Joe has some skeletons in his closet and there are some people that just want to keep a good man down.
While out on a job, a boy named Gary shows up (played by Tye Sheridan in a staggering performance) seeking employment. The kid is a drifter, looking for any work, regardless of how tough it is. Having a soft heart, Joe gives him a chance. And boy, this kid can work.
Soon after, the two form an unlikely bond (Joe sees a lot of himself in Gary); Joe discovers Gary lives in a broken home with an abusive father who’s also a drunk, vagrant, killer, a*****e — I suppose he’s what you would call a piece of s**t. This is when Joe has to decide — keep the simple life he’s been living, or let that dormant bomb inside him explode and beat the hell out of all the goons who are giving him trouble, along with the folks he’s rapidly beginning to care for. Joe is not only a test of Joe’s physical stability, but mental as well. And if we’re going to be honest here, Cage is at his best when he loses his s**t. And don’t you worry, dear reader, at some point in the film, he does.
There’s an ensemble of great characters in Joe. Joe’s workers have some of the best camaraderie I’ve seen on film in a long time — they really light up the screen and are a joy to watch. While working in the blistering heat, they banter, goof around with each other, and do whatever else they can to keep sane while working a tough job.
Tye Sheridan marks a continued amazing start to a long career in Joe. With only a few films under his belt, he’s already commanding the screen and breathes life into every one of his scenes. This boy is not afraid to get head-to-head with the great Cage. If Sheridan keeps his focus on acting and stays out of the Hollywood nightlife, he’s going to go really, really far.
Not a lot of action happens in Joe — there’s a lot of Cage learning about Gary (whom he secretly wants to be his successor when he’s no longer around), and telling funny stories about beating the s**t out of people (who most likely deserved it). But when the action calls for it, once the Cage becomes uncaged, the hospital just got a lot busier.
Joe has an all-to-familiar message we’ve seen before, but it’s portrayed in a heroic manner: you may be through with the past, but the past ain’t through with you. After a tragedy, a mistake, or being at the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes things will come back to haunt or hurt you, no matter how much you’ve changed and no matter how good you are to all the people you come into contact with. In short: Life is a bitch, but you manage the best you can.
Joe is the second film writer/director David Gordon Green has made without the studio system since The Sitter (the movie we all promise to forget about forever), and I do hope he keeps it going. When he has complete creative control of his films, it’s heavy on the emotions. Some of his independent films — George Washington, All the Real Girls,, Prince Avalanche, Snow Angels — take place in a small town where not a lot happens, but all pack an emotional punch. Just like Joe, they’re powerful and crushing. Joe is another profound achievement in David Gordon Green’s career.