Before my screening of Joe, I wondered what kind of Nicolas Cage I’d be subject to for its duration. As good of an actor as he is, he has had a varied career. From “the bees” to voodoo make up in Ghost Rider, you never quite know what you’re going to get from the man. Color me surprised when Joe forces Cage to subdue the “Rage Cage” and promptly deliver one of the finest performances of his career.
Joe came out of nowhere to completely surprise me. It’s going to be a film I remember for quite a while. It’s definitely going to end up on lots of “Best of 2014” lists.
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Director: David Gordon Green
Release Date: April 11, 2011
Adapted from Larry Brown’s novel, Joe, Nicolas Cage stars as Joe Ransom, an ex-con with a mysterious past (the film never quite explains why we went to prison in the first place) who meets a young drifter, Gary (Tye Sheridan) and eventually becomes an unlikely role model and caretaker for the boy when he realizes the boy comes from a broken home. Although this story has been told a few times before (and therefore nothing is truly revolutionary about the setting or direction), it has never felt so natural. Last year’s Mud (which Roadside Attractions also distributed) comes to mind in its similarities, but while that film swung more toward the fantastical, Joe remains grounded and ultimately easier to connect with.
But Joe‘s not about its story, oddly. Joe‘s about the quieter moments in between narrative set pieces. Joe bends the distance and stagnancy between scenes and necessitates a dramatic well of emotions from its characters. The film is more about exploring how the characters react (or fail to react) to the events of their life rather than showcase those events. I know this statement makes little sense, but it’s hard to put into words how well crafted the overall “vibe” in Joe is. It’s a naturalistic setting (taking place in the outskirts of Texas), filled with what honestly seem to be people rather than actors acting like people. For example, Joe’s the boss of a crew who help destroy trees by sticking acid in them. That crew is filled with African Americans who speak in such a manner, it would’ve labeled racist in any other film. It all just flows properly because these people never once act like they’re pretending as they just talk the way they always do.
This natural and comfortable vibe carries the film even when there’s a distinct lack in movement. While the film is successful at playing with stagnancy most of the time, it does falter on a few occasions. Whether or not this is a case of festival fatigue or not, the woman I sat next to during my screening fell asleep during the middle of the film. Aside from some pacing issues, Joe truly shines when it delves into quiet exchanges between characters. Tye Sheridan brings his chops as he did previously in Mud and delivers a stellar performance. His Gary is one of the most honest and heartfelt characters this year. You want this kid to succeed, and are devasted when things don’t go well. Joe could’ve easily flopped if Tye weren’t so engrossing.
As for Cage, he’s finally given a role that doesn’t rely on the campy style he’s adopted in his previous line of films. He’s given a gritty, almost shady individual. And as hard as this is to say, it’s the only film that’s pushed this level of performance from the man. In fact, his character Joe Ransom is given an extra level of mystique when you consider Cage’s acting past. As I watched Cage on screen, I kept expecting Ransom to explode into fits of insanity and there’s an excellent play on that expectation. Joe wisely keeps Ransom’s penchant for craziness bubbling just under the surface. Even when others challenge him, there’s always a hesitation to his actions where Cage just might let the rage out. It’s a nuanced take on a character that we haven’t seen from Cage in years.
Joe isn’t perfect by any means (it’s got a plot that doesn’t make any revolutionary decisions, the pace noticeably drags during the second act, and some of the character’s motivations don’t make too much sense) but it’s got a lot of good going for it. It’s got a sympathetic villain that maintains that sympathy even when he devolves into a cartoon (in fact, Gary’s father, Ronnie Gene Blevins, delivers the standout performance of the entire feature), it’s anchored by multiple great performances, and even has bit of humor to even all of it out (where Cage just gets to let loose and be Cage).
As of now, Joe is one of my favorite films of 2014. I expect it to stay that way as the year goes on.