Inevitably, any movie starring Nicolas Cage is going to be a sizable target with a giant bullseye shaped like Cage’s head. The visage of Cage, or the mere mention of his name, has become an internet meme in its own right. His performances have been lambasted and hyped up so much that it is almost impossible for him to avoid scrutiny. It’s not like Cage had previously minimized his target at all by taking on some ridiculous roles and being generally awful in some truly miserable movies. He has been, at times, or at least since National Treasure, the acting version of Michael Bay.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I started watching Joe. It looked to be everything that is not a Cage movie. It is directed by the relatively unknown, to the general movie-going audience, David Gordon Green, an indie movie and TV director (Eastbound & Down) who has taken well-known actors in a more serious direction (Pineapple Express, Prince Avalanche, Camp X-Ray). Green, a fan of using local actors for his movies, casts Tye Sheridan as 15-year old drifter, Gary, and Gary Poulter, a homeless man from Austin, Texas with this movie as his only listed credit, as his abusive and manipulative father. When they wander in to a small town with their family, Gary meets Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con who runs a cash-only (aka illegal) forest clearing crew. Gary is keen to take a job to start making his own money and help out his family since his alcoholic and physically abusive father won’t.
As Gary spends more time with Joe and his crew, Joe sees this abusive and harmful relationship and a sense of justice and humanity awakens in him. He is deeply troubled by his own personal demons of violence and anger, which is self-medicated through alcohol and cigarettes, and he struggles to be a fatherly figure to Gary while also avoiding a confrontation with Gary’s true father that could land him back in prison. When it all comes to a head Joe must balance doing what is just and doing what is lawfully right. There are no easy answers and Joe must avoid violent answers while being confronted by violent responses from those who stand in his way.
The caging (pun intended) of Joe’s violent tendencies is what makes Green’s casting and directorial choices absolutely brilliant in this movie. Cage has been jokingly known as having the “Cage rage” and his acting tends to be the hamming up of his crazy outbursts. It is very meta that the movie is Joe’s struggle to contain that violence and try to be a decent, upstanding, righteous man. Green and Cage give the movie a sense of tension and contemplative aggression that paces the movie so well. You can tell it is building up to something that may or may not spill over before the movie ends. You so badly want him to control it, yet you want to see justice done for Gary and his family. It’s a grueling, yet honest, portrait of a man struggling with staying on the right path while only knowing one way to solve the problems in his life or other people’s lives.
The message of Joe, and why I recommend it for this weekend’s Netflix pick, is that doing the right thing and doing the just thing are not always one in the same. Joe is seen by the town as someone who is to be both pitied and feared, loved and avoided. He is a complicated man who has seen his anger result in prison time and in rescuing the weak and vulnerable.
Joe is given no last name and has an everyman quality that makes him like you, me, or the guy down the street. He is not over-the-top, as Nicolas Cage has been accused of being, he is something much more human. He is a conflicted and afflicted man struggling to do what is right amidst relationships and situations where everything is wrong. This is not a feel GOOD story, but it is a feel-ING story for the everyday struggles of real people.