Saturday, April 12, 2014

In Theaters/On VOD: JOE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Gordon Green.  Written by Gary Hawkins.  Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Milton Fountain. (R, 118 mins)

At first glance, the rural drama JOE--not a reimagining of John G. Avildsen's controversial 1970 film--would appear to be a lot like last year's MUD, starting with Tye Sheridan again cast as a troubled kid who finds an unlikely role model played by an actor with something to prove. Where MUD saw Sheridan bearing witness to the McConnaisance, JOE finds the gifted young actor--who also co-starred in Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE--paired with Nicolas Cage in his best role in years, turning in the kind of performance that made him such a captivating presence in his younger days up to his Oscar-winning turn in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995). Cage seemed to stop exerting himself once "Academy Award winner" was guaranteed to preface his name for the rest of his life. Sure, there were entertaining popcorn movies--it's hard to argue with the likes of THE ROCK (1996), FACE/OFF (1997), and CON AIR (1997), and the NATIONAL TREASURE films were dumb fun.  But in recent years, Cage has become a case study in talent-squandering starting with the ill-advised remake of THE WICKER MAN (2006), which has become a modern-day bad-movie classic, and continuing with a string of increasingly phoned-in and decreasingly distributed paycheck gigs brought on mostly by the actor's serious financial issues in the late '00s.  But even amidst the drek, there were some good performances in films like THE WEATHER MAN (2005), LORD OF WAR (2005), Werner Herzog's insane THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009) and KICK-ASS (2010).  Looking over his credits from the last decade, there's numerous examples of Cage either not giving a shit (BANGKOK DANGEROUS, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, SEASON OF THE WITCH, STOLEN) or hamming it up to provide material for future YouTube videos of his overacting, but are his list of duds and misfires worse than any other coasting A-lister in a career lull? One could certainly argue that we've been a little too hard on Cage, but it's only because he, like the frequently-criticized Robert De Niro, is capable of so much more than what he's been doing. If you miss the Cage of old, the Cage that made LEAVING LAS VEGAS so devastating, the Cage that existed prior to the line "Killing me won't bring back your goddamn honey!" then JOE will be a most welcome surprise.

It's interesting that Cage's comeback effort is helmed by indie darling-turned-pariah David Gordon Green, the GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000) and ALL THE REAL GIRLS (2003) auteur who's spent the last several years in the stoner-comedy orbit of James Franco and Danny McBride with PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) and the universally-loathed YOUR HIGHNESS (2011), in addition to producing and directing HBO's EASTBOUND AND DOWN.  Green's been derided as everything from a hack to a sellout for his commercial endeavors, but it only lasted three films (he also made the instantly forgotten Jonah Hill vehicle THE SITTER) before he got back to business with last year's acclaimed but little-seen PRINCE AVALANCHE.  Green's shift to commercial comedy was surprising, but perhaps he was just setting himself up with enough of a financial cushion so he'd be free to make the films he wanted to make.  If he should be criticized for anything, it's refusing to abandon his doomed plan to remake Dario Argento's 1977 classic SUSPIRIA.

Green shot JOE in the outskirts of Austin, TX, and like his earliest efforts, it captures a genuine grittiness and displays a strong sense of local color.  With the exception of Cage, Sheridan, Ronnie Gene Blevins, and Adriene Mishler, the cast is made up of non-professionals from Austin and surrounding towns who contribute a very palpable feeling of reality to the characters they play.  Green understands these folks and he's taken the time to get to know them and get them acclimated to being on a movie set. These are not sophisticated, big-city types with cinematic aspirations.  JOE takes place in what looks like a destitute area that in many ways is as isolated as the Cahulawassee River region of DELIVERANCE. Even the bit players are three-dimensional characters and not caricatures where most Hollywood films would play the white trash, hillbilly cliches--barely literate, bad teeth, ramshackle homes--for easy laughs. A Hollywood film would've worked in a subplot where Cage busted up a meth lab.  JOE takes place in a part of Texas that's decidedly off the beaten path, where misfits blend in among misfits and other societal cast-offs, the kind of place where Harry Dean Stanton's Travis from Wim Wenders' PARIS, TEXAS probably could've disappeared unnoticed.

Sheridan is 15-year-old Gary, looking for a job to support his mom and mute sister while his abusive dad "G-Daawg" (Gary Poulter) beats him, drinks, and is generally useless around their dilapidated backwoods shack of a home.  He gets a job working for Joe (Cage), who runs a crew of under-the-table guys who poison trees so lumber companies can come through and cut them down. Pacing the film like a good book, Green only reveals Joe's character in a very gradual fashion.  We learn that he has anger management issues, spent some time in prison, drinks too much, and is the kind of guy who uses black electrical tape to secure a bandage over a bullet wound, but he treats his employees well, has a reputation as a stand-up guy and a straight-shooter, and sees in Gary someone very much like himself, a good person who's been dealt the same shitty cards and seems doomed to have his ass beaten by life.  There's unspoken darkness in Joe's past:  you can see him mustering all of his strength to control his temper (being that it's Cage, you constantly wait for him to erupt--which he does, but not in the fashion you expect from "Nicolas Cage"), he has very specific demands when he visits prostitute Merle (Sue Rock) at the skeeziest brothel to hit the screens in a long time, and there's a reason the local cops always seem to be on his case. It's no surprise that Joe and Gary will bond and that Joe will intervene in problems that eventually intersect to affect both of them (Blevins plays a local idiot who has an axe to grind with Joe, but he also has a run-in Gary that will prove fateful), giving Joe the obligatory One Last Shot at Redemption, but what makes JOE special is the unique way Green, the actors, and screenwriter Gary Hawkins (working from a novel by Larry Brown) tell the story.

Given Sheridan's presence and the surface similarities, comparisons to MUD are inevitable and not unwarranted. But JOE, despite lighthearted moments in the scenes with Joe and his workers busting each others' chops (the locals who make up his crew have a very improvisational rapport with Cage that's a joy to watch), is much more grim and dark.  A lot of this is due to the stunning work done by Poulter, in what sadly turned out to be his only film.  Poulter was a homeless man discovered by casting associates whose only experience was once being a background extra on THIRTYSOMETHING 25 years earlier.  He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after filming wrapped, and was found lying dead in shallow water a month after that. For someone who had no acting experience, Poulter commands the screen like a veteran pro. Knowing Poulter's own unfortunate story, it's impossible to watch his terrifying performance and not imagine the dark shit he'd experienced in his life.  He was only 54 when he died, but looks about two decades older. There's a simmering rage behind Poulter's eyes that's disturbingly real in his scenes with Sheridan, as G-Daawg verbally and physically abuses Gary before stealing his hard-earned money.  You'll hate G-Daawg like you've hated few movie villains in recent memory (Blevins' pathetic Willie-Russell is just as awful a human being), and Poulter is so good here that he manages to steal the film from the two stars.

Lionsgate isn't giving JOE much of a rollout, relegating it to its "Roadside Attractions" arthouse division and sending it on the VOD route.  There's no reason that this couldn't be the same kind of sleeper hit that MUD was a year ago.  It's a more difficult film and its slow-burn nature may make it inaccessible to some, but it's one of the year's best films, and as much as I'd love to think it's the first step of a Cageaissance, he does have some typically dubious-looking films coming down the pike, including a remake of the Kirk Cameron Rapture cheesefest LEFT BEHIND, which can't possibly be good.  Hey, whatever pays the bills, but it would be an unfortunate missed opportunity if the 50-year-old Cage doesn't build on the artistic momentum of JOE for a middle-aged revitalization that shows the world why he was so special when he was a young man. JOE is as essential a Cage performance as RAISING ARIZONA or LEAVING LAS VEGAS, Sheridan is a remarkable actor who's going on to a great career, and Poulter will give you chills. JOE is one of those low-key sleepers that sneak up on you as you find yourself thinking about it days after seeing it.

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