David Gordon Green is a director with something to prove after coming under scrutiny with his film-making choices over recent years. His credible status and background came into question after his work on throwaway comedies. The publicised return to form is captured within what is being referred to as his indie trilogy, the first instalment of which was released last year and was a critical success. The second, titled ‘Joe’, stars Nicolas Cage in the eponymous role; an ex-con with anger issues who plies his trade in the destruction of pine trees to make way for stronger saplings.
His squad of African American workers kill trees by infecting them with deadly herbicide, causing them to weaken and fall. This poison seeps into not only the forest but the entire environment, including the characters that inhabit it. He employs a new labourer in the shape of teenager Gary Jones, played by Tye Sheridan, whose dysfunctional family have recently moved to town. A story of masculinity to the tune of barking dogs, this character driven film showcases the acting prowess of the leads but covers very familiar ground.
The superb visuals and score assemble a constantly threatening atmosphere and Gary Jones’ decent, charismatic personality feels out of place in the dirty backdrop. He too though is extremely capable of causing pain when necessary. He’s developed a hardness due to the abuse from Wade, his alcoholic disgrace of a father. Gary looks to Joe as a saviour and as an escape from his horrific home life. Joe however has his own demons, and his problems mean that he is never far away from his next brush with the law. He yearns to be a good man, and appears to have paternal qualities. The structure slowly builds a typical father-son triangle where the impressionable youth decides between bad or worse.
Putting aside the fairly substandard plotting, the performances lift the experience. Cage reminds us how good an actor he can be, and Joe’s shady past is ever-present in his intense stare. Tye Sheridan is effective, as he was in Mud, in a similar role in which he idolises a mysterious flawed three lettered title character. Stealing scenes though is Gary Poulter, who played Gary’s scraggy-haired villain of a dad. His presence and his words are evil, and his uneducated perspective of the world makes him incredibly dangerous. His darkness culminates is a shocking moment when he approaches a vagrant in need of feeding his addiction. Sadly, Poulter, who was a homeless non-professional actor died shortly after the film was completed following an alcohol binge so will never see his achievement on the silver screen.
A few stand out scenes, one involving a brutal brothel dogfight, will stay with you long after seeing ‘Joe’ but I was left wanting more. The work feels restricted and doesn’t expand outside the realms of tradition in terms of the core themes. Despite this, the cinematography is stunning in its grubbiness, and it is as good as I’ve seen Nicolas Cage in as long as I can remember. Green has furthered his reputation rebuild by taking another step into the right direction, choosing worth subject matter and continuing his successful independent resurgence.