Nic Cage Tries to Emulate Matthew McConaughey In David Gordon Green's Incoherent White-Trash Noir, 'Joe'
In some interesting parallels, David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, All the Real Girls) and Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) were both born in Little Rock, Arkansas, they both studied filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, they are good friends, and they both worked together on a documentary of one of their favorite writers, Larry Brown, who provides the story for David Gordon Green’s Joe, which played at the SXSW Festival in 2014 much like Mud — which was obviously heavily influenced by the work of Larry Brown — played at SXSW in 2013. Both films also star Tye Sheridan (the kid who played Ellis in Mud). Likewise, Mud was one of a series of Matthew McConaughey films that put his career back on track, and one has to wonder if, with Joe, Nic Cage is trying to do the same (interestingly, another one of the films that put McConaughey’s career in turnaround was Killer Joe).
The difference, unfortunately, is that while both McConaughey’s performance in Mud and Cage’s performance in Joe are exceptionally good, McConaughey had a much better story to fall back on. Joe, another entry into the trendy new white-trash noir subgenre, does an excellent job of capturing the kind of timeless nature of dirt-poor, hard-living redneck life in the deep South and features another series of outstanding performances, but unlike Mud, the characters and their motivations in Joe simply don’t make sense.
There may have been more context for the characters in Larry Brown’s original story, but screenwriter Gary Hawkins either doesn’t bring them to the screen, or David Gordon Green left that context on the cutting room floor. The film centers on Joe, an honest, hard-working, well-respected foreman of a crew that illegally poisons unusable trees that the timber industry is not allowed to otherwise cut down and replaces them with more useful trees. It’s a tough, sweaty, back-breaking job, but Joe is respected for the fairness with which he treats his employees.
Enter Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old kid who lives in an dilapidated, abandoned house with his mentally unwell sister, his useless mother, and a destructive, alcoholic dead-beat of a father, who is not above using violence to get his next drink, even if that means beating the sh*t out of his family members. Gary asks Joe for a job, Joe obliges, and the two forge a kind of mentor/mentee friendship.
The trouble is, like Gary’s Dad, Joe is a violent alcoholic, although where he directs that violence often makes little sense. There’s an aimless villain in Joe named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who only seems to turn up when Joe needs an excuse to beat up on someone, and to the side, there’s a white-trash whorehouse that Joe frequents in order to temper his violence. For good measure, there’s also a violent pit bull, who I think is meant to be a metaphor for Joe and Gary’s father, a breed of dog simply born to violence who gives into it in moments of weakness.
The ingredients to a great, Mud-like film exists in Joe, but the storyline never really comes together: It just kind of meanders from one violent confrontation to another, which sees men put their machismo on display for no real reason other than the fact that it’s in their nature, and alcohol acts as its trigger. Still, Nic Cage provides an excellent performance, which is restrained when it needs to be, and Crazy Cage on the occasions in which it’s called for. Tye Sheridan is fantastic, as he was in Mud, and may have found his niche as the son surrogate in these kind of gritty Southern films. David Gordon Green also does a remarkable job of capturing mood and setting, and in many ways, it feels like a return to his early work form in George Washington and All the Real Girls.
Unfortunately, what keeps Joe from becoming another Mud is the “just because” that permeates the film: Why is Joe violent? Just because. Why would Gary’s dad resort to beating a man to death for a bottle of cheap wine? Just because. Why does Joe continue to act in self-destructive ways? Just because. Why does Joe need a blow job to to keep from acting out? Just because. Why is there a woman living with Joe? Just because. A couple of just becauses here and there are can be excused, but 70 percent of everything that happens in Joe feels like it happens “just because,” and not even one of Nic Cage’s impressive performances and the gritty, Southern realism on display can overcome that lack.
(Joe played at the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival.)