Last year returned from a slump. Fans of his earlier work had been letdown by his broad studio comedies: the hilarious Pineapple Express, the enjoyably bizarre Your Highness, and the flatout terrible babysitting comedy, The Sitter. He recently returned to his roots with Prince Avalanche, a character-driven story about friendship. It was one of 2013's best films. Being the fast worker that he is, Green already has another movie that'll be released next month, Joe. While it's not as successful as Prince Avalanche, it's another film from Green that both his arthouse and mainstream fans will enjoy. The two sensibilities don't always mesh together in_ Joe_, but when they do, it's a thrilling drama.
Joe () is a man's man on the outside. He's big, tough, and runs a crew of men who illegally kill trees. He's more than another tough guy, though. He's fully aware of his flaws and the violence he's capable of. When he's not put into a situation he has to fight his way out of, he's a sweet guy who forms a bond with a teenage boy, Gary (). The kid comes from an abusive home. His drunk father beats him and only wants to work if it'll support his drinking, not his family. The boy looks after his mother and sister. When Joe sees how Gary is treated, he takes him under his wing.
Needless to say, he's not the best role model, but he's a role model nonetheless. The relationship between them if often touching. The film could use more of it in the first half, in fact, to make the finale have more of an emotional kick to it, but what's there between them is well-acted, convincing, and one of the film's many high points.
The main pleasure of Joe is Nicolas Cage's performance. Those who wrongfully believe he only can hit manic notes will eat their words when they see another human performance from Cage as Joe. There's nothing showy about Cage's work here. It's natural, present, funny, intimidating, and more. He goes from each scene to the next nailing whatever dramatic or comedic moment comes his way.
The film as a whole is less successful in that regard. Tonally the movie is uneven. Green's sense of humor is present, and sometimes it doesn't sit well after experiencing, or while experiencing, harsh violence. The humor doesn't puncuate the violence by contrasting it, because it's more off than anything. There's a scene involving Joe and his dog that comes completely at the wrong time, as if the movie's softer side is worried the film's bleakness may have lost you, feeling the need to win you back. It's a great scene, but perhaps Green was too attatched to it to let it go or find another place for it.
These tonal missteps don't detract too much from the film's immersive atmosphere. This is a world where characters with the smallest amount of screentime leave an impression. Each performance, from Cage to all the non-actors involved, give screenwriter Gary Hawkin's adaptation of Larry Brown's book personality.