Sunday, April 13, 2014

Review: 'Joe' is an Engrossing Return to Form for Green and Cage

Left to right: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan
If there is something that can be said about director David Gordon Green, it is that he's been rather inconsistent. Starting off as a strong, promising director with films like George Washington, he seemed set to become one of the modern greats before sidetracking into abysmal comedies such as Your Highness. When all seemed lost, the brief stint of poor decisions paved the way for essentially his second coming. Then along came Joe, which may be his most enjoyably powerful and authentic film in seven years. To say the least, the Green that you love is back with a strong reminder of his skill at portraying rural characters with complex emotions.

In the past year, it seems like the south has gotten its fair share of cinema. Joe is the latest in a line of films detailing Contemporary Southern Gothic that includes Mud, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Nebraska and even Green's previous film Prince Avalanche. The most impressive achievement of this subgenre is that it has managed to lift the stereotypes of redneck culture and replace it with depictions of hard working individuals who have the same problems that anyone else does. In fact, due to living in more rural places, there is a sense of simplicity to their logic that helps the drama come from a more personal place and allows the climaxes of each story to have a booming effect. Where the coastal cities have moved on to discussing industrial and economic terms, the south lives by a different set of motives. As these films have exploited, it is an endearing and missing aspect of modern cinema that actually enhances the view of American culture.

In the Contemporary Southern Gothic genre, Joe may be the closest of the bunch to qualify as a western. There aren't horses or bandits running around in desert. In fact, majority of the story is set in the woods and in drab housing. Of course, this is to overlook what a western would likely appear to be in the 21st century. The story borrows a lot of elements from director George Stevens' iconic Shane in which the story's surrogates are fighting for a different cause. Gary (Tye Sheridan) is a hardworking kid who is consistently transplanted to new cities to find work to help his negligent father (Gary Poulter). When he finds Joe (Nicolas Cage), who chops down trees, he finds a father figure, a.k.a. Shane. It is a reversal or sorts, but as the story progresses, it has all of the familiar elements updated for a logical approach. There are villains, bars, and even a couple shoot-outs. 

Most of all, the universe is populated with fascinating characters. Sheridan and Cage are exceptional as the main characters. Sheridan brings a certain life to a hardworking son of an alcoholic that manages to range from heartbreaking to funny. He commands the screen as he fights his father and manages to seem wise beyond his years. Cage is also brilliant as Joe, whose turmoil intertwines with Gary's in a way that allows his stoic persona to take on a heroic role as he teaches Gary the ropes of how to be a man. Joe is the quintessential update of Shane in that he is the reluctant hero with a legacy in front of him. The dramatic flair present in the performance is some of the most focused and magnetic in Cage's career. Even Poulter, in his first and unfortunately last role, is a compelling find as G-Daawg: an alcoholic without much of a care for anyone else. These three in particular help to turn Joe into the modern western with the open plains being replaced by dysfunctional families.

Green in particular is back on top of his game. From the catchy music cues to the nuanced shots, he manages to make the drama flow naturally and allows the actors to move at their own pace. There is a realism to the entire thing that is thankfully matched by an ambitious cast of fully realized performances. The world feels lived in and there is a sense of familiarity to every aspect of this film. What he has made is a universe that is complicated, dark, but still allows for an occasional moment of laughter. It is the Green formula that hasn't been seen since Snow Angels and boy how it was missed. When focused like this, it manages to turn out a powerful, original drama that turns blue collar culture into something relative. He makes you care about alcoholics and dysfunctional families without overselling. 

If there is only one flaw with the film, it is that characters tend to yell a lot. This isn't necessarily a bad thing when considering the subject matter, but many scenes are resolved in shouting matches. It does create a hostile feeling and the tension becomes stronger. However, when even the most mundane aspect of the story is now being argued about, it does get tiresome. Even if it serves a purpose, there isn't much to keep it from seeming off putting. That doesn't keep Joe from being the powerhouse that it is, but it does suggest that while Green has greatly improved his craft, he may sometimes have issues balancing emotional tension.

Joe is a great film that proves that features the return of Green and Cage to compelling cinema and gives Sheridan an early standout to his career. Even when viewed as a dysfunctional family film and not a contemporary Shane, it offers something unique with characters that bond in humanistic ways. They may not always be the right ways, but that is what helps it to feel authentic. There are moments that will stick with you and make you wish for more cinema like this (the closest comparison is another good Sheridan-starring film: Mud). Of course, it just makes you hope that Green's vision for contemporary rural culture will not be tarnished and that this is the second coming of a potential auteur of modern Americana.

Gary Poulter
If there is one thing that will disappoint viewers, it is that Gary Poulter has died. Before this film, it is likely that you never heard of him. This is because he was homeless and was only picked up by Green when he saw something interesting in him. It shows up in the film with a candid portrayal of alcoholism that is rather powerful. While Green suggested that the film would open up opportunities for him when it opened, Poulter unfortunately died before that could happen. In his sole credit, it suggests something profound not only of Green as a great casting scout, but also in the idea that it doesn't take a professional actor to make something brilliant.

In fact, the whole film has a lot of kinetic energy bubbling through the film. I do feel like Cage and Sheridan are brilliant and will likely be in discussion come next year's awards season. I unfortunately don't believe it will be for an Academy Award. As suggested earlier, Joe reminds me a bit of Mud, which I also hyped as a film with potential. While it stood more of a chance at the Spirit Awards, it didn't even scratch the surface of the Oscars. Even if Cage has previously won (Best Actor - Leaving Las Vegas), he has had an impressively bizarre career since then that wouldn't suggest that one great performance is going to overshadow his oddities. Sheridan is only on his third film as well, which may handicap his chances.

Even then, I do believe that Green is back on track after some problematic efforts. Being a big fan of Snow Angels, I was very much on board with this story and its ability to indulge me in this universe. However, due to it only being April, I do have a belief that films released before June stand no chance at Best Picture. I will keep this film in that camp, as while I find it an impressive, exceptional story, it doesn't hold much weight outside of the independent community. However, provided that Green continues to make compelling dramas, I do believe that he may get a nomination somewhere down the line. He has proven that he still has some charm here, and I want to see more.

Will Joe manage to get into the Best Picture race despite its handicaps? Is David Gordon Green capable of continuing his return to quality film making? Is Tye Sheridan not too far behind with a potential Oscar nomination?

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