Nicolas Cage was on the very brink of becoming a parody of himself. I am not ashamed to say that he is my favorite actor of all-time, but over the past few years, he has disappointed me with his role choices and undeniable sense that he has sold his phenomenal talents for the powerful force of the mighty dollar. It has now been about four years since his last “Certified Fresh” film on the movie review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes and it has also been even longer since he’s starred in anything other than an action film. Well, Joe has finally broken that terrible streak and has finally brought Cage back from the depths of self-parody and back to showing the world just how compelling he can be and this may be one of his best roles to date.
Throughout Joe, I was consistently reminded of my favorite movie of last year, The Way Way Back. It’s not that they have anything in common story wise, but they both had some of the most engaging characters I have ever seen on-screen…well, maybe not the most engaging, but that’s how I felt while watching them. I couldn’t help but become mesmerized and entranced within the story and characters thanks to their immense layers and inner messages that are held down deep below the skin’s surface.
Nicolas Cage plays the role of Joe, a hard-working and violent ex-con who is always getting into trouble with the law. He drinks much more than the average man, much like everyone else in this movie, and has an interesting love/hate relationship with his dog, but overall, he is very kind. This is actually not Cage’s usual role and this just shows how he is not just a one trick pony. Besides the occasional spits of rage, Joe is a mostly subdued character. To play Joe, you have to be very subtle and that is not what Cage is usually known for, but he does it with ease.
There is a line in the film said by Joe’s lover, Connie, when they are in bed that really shows Joe’s true self. Connie says, “You pretend to be asleep, but I know you’d cry if I said the wrong thing.” Joe has a very rough exterior, but in truth, he is strangely fragile. He is easily enraged and emotionally complex, but tries his best to keep himself in check for fear of hurting anyone. This is also explained in a scene where he beats up a cop for trying to get him to blow into a blood-alcohol tester.
Tye Sheridan, most known for his recent role in 2013’s Mud, plays the Gary Jones, an abused child that Cage takes under his wing as a father figure. Say what you will about child actors, but this kid is absolutely phenomenal. His character is just as multi-layered as Joe and written to perfection with utter honesty, never sugarcoating the terror he has to go through with his father, played by Gary Poulter who plays the part like its second skin. He is the exact definition of evil and it is so mesmerizing to watch him silently terrorize the landscape and people around him. A scene where he beats a man to death for a single bottle of alcohol is a great example of his menace and absolute sense of self-destruction and hatred.
At first glance, you would see that it is Joe that saves Gary from his terrible life, and that is true, but I think that it is Gary who is the savior of this story, and Joe is the one being saved without quite realizing it. Joe is a very depressing figure and it is Gary that he must begin to care for and through this he finally learns what it means to truly love someone and be willing to die for that person.
Joe is a bleak work. It is not for the faint of heart and never sugarcoats its message. Like Nicolas Cage, Joe is also a return to form for director David Gordon Green who has, as of late, been producing tasteless comedies such as Your Highness and The Sitter. His most recent film, besides Joe, Prince Avalanche was at least pointed a bit in the right direction, but it wasn’t until this one that he finally hit the sweet spot. David Gordon Green is one of the finest directors currently in the business and if you watch Joe or almost any of his other works, you’ll understand what I mean. He has a way with scenery that is second to none and manifests fantastical ideas in the form of normal people, some with a name as simple as Joe. Joe is bleak, but it is thanks to this bleakness that we are able to connect and understand the characters and see them through your own eyes, even with an inch of salty tears filling them up. Life is not just a walk in the park, and Joe is a film that paints a portrait of that like nothing else.
5 out of 5