Nicolas Cage and David Gordon Green Return in the gritty “Joe”

Danny Marroquin

Joe is available on Cox OnDemand

Joe is the kind of boss who is well-respected at his job, while in town he sometimes gets shot at. He is the kind of man who doesn’t go to the hospital when that happens. He removes the bullet and treats the wound himself. Nicolas Cage, who plays Joe, made the decision to put that scene back in the script; it was in the original novel by Larry Brown, an author that director David Gordon Green studied at art school in North Carolina (the land of Thomas Wolfe’s Lord).

Watching Gordon Green’s dark and beautiful film,  we are reminded what a creative actor Cage has always been. And how crazy he is too — that’s really Cage handling a poisonous snake in an early scene. Yet his portrait of the working class Joe, a former bad boy who now poisons and de-forests trees, is rendered quiet, understated and tender in the style of his Oscar-winning “Leaving Las Vegas” role. The difference here being Joe’s simmering anger. It’s a return to form and maybe a first step to more substantial days (though the internet is beginning to make a case for the big-budget “Western Kabuki” Cage).

“Joe” opens with a stark and effective scene of father and son. G-Daawg (Gary Poulter), a drunk and wandering ex-break dancer, is being scolded by his son Gary (Tye Sheridan from Mud and Tree of Life). But this scene is not the father and son deal the movie is talking about. It’s more about the son in need. Gary’s father is lazy and drunk, and the house has fallen into abject poverty. The sister can’t speak, literally, and is looked after by Gary. The mom is a frail apologist for their failure. Gary wants to work. And the woodsman Joe, is always in need of a good hand.

Gary gets to work and gets along with the crew of black workers about as easily as Joe does, when the gold teeth’d team leader calls Joe to wake him up, Joe asks with joy if the boys got into trouble last night. They teach Gary the ways of tree poisoning. Gary tries to get his dad to work but the ornery man falls out with the workers. And in classic noir style, Joe’s past life, the crooks and the law continue to hassle him. In a touching and realistic scene one of Joe’s former girlfriend’s comes back to him, needing a solid guy and a roof. She is soon disappointed when Joe can’t take her out.  He only takes his Jack and Coke from home now. To go out, is to tempt the demons. Once you’ve reached where Joe has, you can only do your job well, and if you’re lucky a kid with character like Gary’s will come along and remind you of something better than the grind.

There is much to say about the film, at its core a heartfelt narrative of flawed male role modeling, and in its undercurrents a brutal satire on the state of manhood in America today. Put together with Green’s last achievement, “Prince Avalanche,” it becomes a river of meditation on hard work as spiritual fulfillment. That point of view is worth something. These are rough people, but in one household (or shack) Joe barges into they don’t even know anymore how to skin the deer and extract the good pieces to eat. Joe, rocking an aging Pantera shirt, is an easy guy to write off maybe, but he knows how to survive in a rural class of people who have been discarded and defrauded by our domestic policy, and in a humid daze, they seem not to have noticed.

Green must have taken note of his friend Jeff Nichols’ outstanding film “Shotgun Stories.” He has seen the film’s testosterone fuel and raised it in violence and brute force. It’s not enough for Joe to visit a whore house. When the girls tempt his anger he brings his wild dog to fight for life with another wild dog on floor one, while he is serviced on floor two. Also in a scene of bum murder, the sheer look of life in the victim’s eyes and disregard for life in the slayer is so blunt as to leave us speechless.

The end emerges with an image of the talented young actor Tye Sheridan in a landscape of  renewal. The journey getting there is dark, and sometimes weird. Green found the non-actor Gary Poulter drunkenly walking the streets of Austin. After the movie the actor drowned to death (drunk), despite Cage saying he could probably get some roles if he hung on a little longer. Oblivion is part and parcel of Green’s vision. The mischievous part of Green hits the slow-mo to follow G-Daawg on a dubious walk down “the street,” letter jacket bearing his old nickname proudly.  He dances drunk in the woods, like an idiot in the street, the dancing relished by Green’s deeply musical camera, albeit in the ominous way of Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden’s dance. The casting here shows Green is smarter than most living directors in knowing that genuine reality is often weirder than the fiction.

In the diction of the men who drift and work Green finds simple beauty. How many of the actors in this film are professionals? The film doesn’t think much of the law, or the idea of manhood that prevails down south. There will be, and is blood.  There’s something in it though of the boy who closes his eyes and imagines the ocean. Or the mother of the world in Green’s “All the Real Girls” who wears the face of a clown to make a little extra. There appears to be a vibrant language all around the hard-up 90 percent that Green (after an odd Hollywood sojourn) has not forgotten, indeed refuses to forget. So the rich energy of that gesture blows up into the night sky like luminous factory smoke.

“Joe” cost $6 million to make and has so far grossed $200,000. Cage waited a year for the right script, chose this one, and keeps a 1st edition of Larry Brown’s novel on his mantel. If you can tell why this movie is good, maybe you’re already a millionaire.

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