David Gordon Green’s Joe is like its titular hero, played by Nicolas Cage. It always remains larger-than-life and beautiful, but flawed. Cage is an actor that constantly defies the notion that back-to-back mediocre movies can destroy star power, but that's also because he is a great actor. He's so good in Joe that you want to tug at his magnificent beard and say, "Again, please."
Here he plays an ex-con, prone to sudden outbursts of violence mostly directed at ‘assholes.’ But generally, Joe is a good man seeking redemption - which is a bloated way of saying he doesn’t want to mess up his life even more. His workday consist of leading a gang of tree poisoners who rid the forests of unwanted greenery. He stays at home and drinks himself to sleep at night.
Enter Gary (Tye Sheridan), the son of a homeless drunk. The latter is played by the late street artist, Gary Poulter, who is a sensational find. Poulter plays this - and I think this a fair description - utterly nasty son of a gun with a sly wickedness. He knows exactly when to camouflage himself as harmless drunk and when to violently grab what he wants.
Joe becomes an unlikely father figure for Gary which puts him on the collision course with the troubled kid’s actual father. Unfortunately, how that collision is achieved comes across as contrived, as characters become caricatures to drive the plot forward. This impression isn’t exactly helped by David Gordon Green’s tendency to employ non-actors and let them deliver long jeremiads in Texan vernacular. In the best moments this technique yields beautiful, poetic results, not to be found in a less meandering, straight-forwardly shot dialogue scenes. At its worst, it seems like an artsy gimmick.
But despite those moments of overt artsiness and contrived plot points, I found Joe’s journey very moving. I would suggest one should look at the movie less as a realistic crime drama, but as two connected inward stories: one man’s search for redemption and a boy choosing his path in life.
My favorite moment comes toward the end of the movie. It’s a beautifully shot scene with Poulter standing on a bridge, looking into the moonlight with Cage slowly approaching. Director David Gordon Green likes to flirt with biblical imagery and plot elements (Undertow, George Washington) in his artsier fare, and here Poulter very much looks like the devil incarnate.
I won’t get into what this makes of Cage’s Joe. I've sounded pretentious enough already. I will however repeat what it makes of Cage: one hell of an actor.
Joe will hit theaters and will be available on iTunes/VOD April 11th.