Our long national nightmare is finally over – director David Gordon Green has returned to making the types of films that put the indie filmmaker on the map in the early aughts with his Joe. Combined with this year’s earlier effort, the drily amusing Prince Avalanche, Green has successfully managed to put the memory of his broad comedy busts like The Sitter and Your Highness behind him, and fans of vintage Green should be quite satisfied with his latest Southern gothic.
Starring Nicolas Cage as the eponymous Joe, an ex-con who makes his living by poisoning whole forests so that they can be deemed sick and subsequently be cleared for the replanting of heartier, more sellable trees. Joe employs a large crew of locals, all of whom seem to like him very much, and he’s a fair, reasonable boss. Off the clock, however, Joe struggles with restraining a powerful, almost insatiable anger, and he tries to keep it at bay through alcohol and simply staying home. The arrival of a young drifter who comes begging for a job up-ends Joe’s tenuous personal peace, and their sweetly parental relationship threatens to change things for both of them. Sounds sentimental? It’s not. Not even a little bit.
Young Tye Sheridan stars as Gary, a kid from bad stock who still seems to be a good seed. Gary is a hard, honest worker intent on providing for his drug addict mother and mentally unwell sister, and he impresses Joe and his crew – even after his lazy, alcoholic, evil stepfather tries his hand at the work and fails miserably. Both Joe and Gary are hunted by various baddies (including the very menacing Ronnie Gene Blevins, who needs to star alongside Peter Sarsgaard in some sort of creepy brother drama yesterday), and the looming threat of violence hangs over the entire film. Occasionally bloody, the film verges into brutality slowly, but it’s never overwrought and Tim Orr’s cinematography keeps even the dreariest of scenes engaging and well-made.
Joe is laced through with odd bits of humor, and Green and screenwriter Gary Hawkins (adapting from Larry Brown’s book) save the most amusing sequence (a beer-fueled search for Joe’s beloved dog that brings he and the boy closer than ever) for late in the film, when audiences will still be reeling from one burst of violence and gearing up for the next one (and when they’ll also be grateful that a stalled-out narrative has finally taken flight). The film is classic Green (literally, it’s like something plucked out of his early, pre-Your Highness career), and it smacks of his first two films, George Washington and Undertow. Aided by a stunning score by frequent collaborators David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain, the return to vintage DGG is complete.
At age sixteen and with only three completed features under his belt, Sheridan already has a career anyone in the business should envy, having worked with talents like Terrence Malick, Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Nichols, Matthew McConaughey, Green, and Cage. If Sheridan continues to evolve and impress the way he has with only three films, he will become one of Hollywood’s brightest young stars (hyperbolic, yes, but Sheridan is just so damn good that such big talk genuinely applies to his talents). He’s excellent here, and it’s plain that the calm and wit that kept him at pace with McConaughey in Mud works just as well here alongside Cage, who seems overjoyed to have a meaty role to work with that he actually cares about. In fact, it’s refreshing to see everyone involved with Joe working on something they so clearly care about, especially David Gordon Green, finally returned to us, and in rare form.
The Upside: An atmospheric and well-crafted return to form for David Gordon Green, stellar performances from Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan, a stand-out score from David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain, solid camera work from Tim Orr.
The Downside: The middle act drags and could be significantly tightened up, the script occasionally ventures into been-there done-that territory.
On the Side: Cinematographer Tim Orr has lensed all nine of Green’s finished features (he’s also filmed Choke, Sex Drive, Observe and Report, and many more).