Directed by David Gordon Green
Screenplay by Gary Hawkins based on the book "Joe" written by Larry Brown
In 2014 our number one source for storytelling is the moving image. Whether it's at the movie theater, home streaming, OnDemand, we are inundated with TV shows, movies, documentaries and YouTube videos. We know who the heroes are. Batman, The Avengers, Spiderman etc, etc. These are updated universal mythic characters harkening allllll the way back to the beginnings of civilization. They help shape our society by instilling core values, morality, authority; they teach us how to make sense of our nature through metaphor.
The more universal the hero, the broader the audience a myth can impact. Every place on this Earth anywhere where there is a society, there are also those particular peoples' localized myths. Folklore is the storytelling of the people. Stories told down through the ages vocally; it was written on the walls, in books, on the radio, and in the past 100 years in movie houses, television sets and now computers, tablets and phones. Millions of stories right in your pocket.
Who are the mythic heroes of America today? Captain America? Captain America is a myth in that his very origin makes him one. He's from the past, from World War II. The story of the noble US Soldier, honest, loyal, strong , smart, resourceful going overseas to beat up Nazis in the Good War. He was frozen in ice and thawed out in the 21st Century. A man who nobody in America can relate to today. We don't have that kind of ideology anymore. Money and fame at any cost. Money and jobs are scarce, and its bringing out the anger in all of us. We've shattered the already broken myths of Columbus, the Founding Fathers and Jamestown. And the tales of Pacos Bill, Johnny Appleseed, Molly Pitcher, and Paul Bunyon hold no water to climate change, Monsanto, Abu Ghraib, or the Industrial Revolution.
There are no more heroes. The real heroes today are the anti-heroes. The damaged ones who have seen and done so much dirt they're just hiding out somewhere waiting for Death to find them. And then, out of the darkness, one more reason to live.
The title character "Joe" (Nicholas Cage in one of his best performances to date) in David Gordon Green's new film, is one of the damaged ones. He has a past and family he doesn't like to acknowledge. Cast out of society by his own volition, he lives on the outskirts of all the places nobody wants to visit. Some dilapidated bum-fuck town filled with savage dogs and dreamless ambitions. Joe owns a business that goes around poisoning trees so they can be legally chopped down and replaced with "better trees" by a big lumber company. Joe does the company's dirty work by hacking holes in the side of the trees, injecting the poison with each stroke by a tube connected from the poison to an axe.
They don't make guys like Joe anymore. But you've known a guy like Joe. A man who chain smokes, rocks an unkempt beard, works alongside his workers, gives his last cigarette away, doesn't trust anyone that doesn't look him in the eyes. He visits the whore house regularly, drinks beer for dinner, regularly gets into fist fights with the law and will beat the teeth out of anyone who hurts his friends. He's tired now. "I don't know who I am. But I know what keeps me alive is restraint. Keeps me out of jail, keeps me from hurting people. A mark of some fucked up faith that there's a reason for all this. A reason in moments I don't do what I want to do". At heart, a lonesome man with absolutely nothing to live for.
Gary (performed with perfect earnestness by Tye Sheriden) is a fifteen year old homeless boy with a drug-addled mother, a physically abusive psychotic father, and a mute sister. Gary's been beaten by his father to the point where Gary doesn't even flinch when his father punches him, he just takes it. The only scene in the whole movie where the father and son have a bonding moment is when Gary's father tries to teach him how to pop and lock. Gary and his father regularly walk all over town looking for work.
One day while walking in the woods Gary stumbles upon Joe wrangling a snake that one of his crew members found. Gary goes right up to Joe and says "Let me see that snake.". Joe looks at him with the snakes head in his hands, fangs out and says "You see that? You get bit by one of those and you dead, you gonna wish you was dead."
Joe naturally likes Gary, maybe for his innocent bluntness, and decides to hire him and his father. It doesn't work out for Gary's father, he starts fights with the other crew members, he's lazy and just an asshole. Joe gives the two a ride back to the abandoned house Gary and his family are currently squatting at. Once there Joe tells them it's not going to work out, but pays Gary for his work and tells him he may have some work for him in the next weeks. As the father and son walk back to the house Joe witnesses the boy's father punch Gary in the back of the head, knocking him to the ground and taking the money out of Gary's hand. Joe almost gets out of the truck but catches himself and sits back down. This will be the last time Joe sits back and does nothing.
In the first ten minutes of the film, Joe is shot in the shoulder with a shotgun by Willie (amazing performance by Ronnie Gene Blevins). Apparently Joe slapped Willie in the face at a bar the night before (we don't see this scene), and Willie is trying to get revenge. Willie is the exact opposite of Joe. A complete coward who thrives in the lawless town. He and Joe have been at it since they were kids. Willie wants to kill Joe and anyone else who disrespects him. "I went through a wind shield at 4 am one morning. And I don't give a fuck." Willie says to Gary before the two throw down. Gary beats Willie's ass to the ground, making him Willie's next target of revenge.
To save Gary and his family from Willie and Gary's father, Joe will have to make the ultimate sacrifice and in the process finally reach his own redemption.
Joe represents the last generation of children from the baby boomer era. He's seen all the factories close, he's seen the destruction of the natural habitat at his own hands. He's seen his country go to hell. He believed the lies of the American Dream and he feels responsible for why it never came true, because he was told, like all of us are in America, that we CAN make a difference when actually that couldn't be farther from the truth.
We can't make anything better in our society but we can make a difference in our local communities by recognizing the young and making sure that the hope they represent never dies fully. The old generation knows that the young are inheriting their neglect and this is what drives them to act in those few fleeting moments that they still have the ability to.
In the past four years there have been four films that have introduced the New american folklore: Winter's Bone(2010), Beasts of the Southern Wild(2012), MUD(2012), and now JOE. These are the new American tales, where the men are hard, beaten, hopeless shells of themselves, the law enforcement is incompetent or completely absent, the parental figures are helpless and confused and it is the children who keep everything together by the thread of a string.
These are the stories of the people who work the land, or whatever is left of it. They have small tight knit communities where everyone knows everyone. When they function, they do so by an understanding that it is THEY, the people, who will work out their differences. These are the people who didn't move to the big cities- people who choose to face the emptiness that's been left in every small, present day American town. There's always a danger that the young must face but can only do so by the guidance of someone from the past generation. The old must sacrifice their long worn selfish ways because they recognize the near impossible struggle that has been put upon the youth.
These are the movies that the international film community should be paying attention to if they want to understand current American society. These are the movies that are the closest related to the golden era of cinema in the 1970's. For they accurately depict the current dilemma in America today:
"How do we keep our young people hopeful in an utterly hopeless situation?".