TIFF13: Joe (2013)

Joe surprised me. I’m not that familiar with the works of David Gordon Green (although I’d like to be) so I wasn’t ready for the exceptional southern regionalism I’d be getting when I sat down to watch his latest film. Joe is a dark and dirty film, where its few moments of lightness put into sharp relief the sad existence of its characters. Quite simply, Joe is Nicolas Cage’s best work in a while.

I’ve always been a fan of Nic Cage. When he’s off the deep-end as in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, he’s more entertaining than most every actor on the face of the planet. And when he’s dialing things back and giving a honest-to-goodness performance — not a performance of “Western Kabuki theatre,” as he self-styles it — he’s damn near hard to top as an actor. In Joe, Cage gets to dial it down as the titular character, a violent, alcoholic man who’s trying to keep a lid on his anger and stay below the radar of the law. Of course, trouble can’t help but find him as he’s constantly getting into fistfights with the local sheriff’s office or dodging bullets from a disgruntled stranger he slapped in the bar.

Joe is offered a form of redemption through his relationship with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a drifter kid who stumbles into Joe’s town with his rag-tag family and is looking for work. Gary’s dad, Wade, is a drunken, toothless ogre, played to terrifying degree by the late first-time actor Gary Poulter, and every moment of Gary’s existence seems excruciating. Joe offers Gary an unlikely role model, and even though Joe suffers from minor versions of the same flaws as Gary’s father, his moral compass is set in stone, like a Wild West marshal. When push comes to shove, Joe always does the right thing.

There are similarities to Mud here, where Sheridan also gets an unconventional father figure in a southern man of violence. But where Mud was a tall-tale, Joe is more of a slice of life of these down-on-their luck regional folk. Both Green and Mud’s Jeff Nichols share resemblance to Terrence Malick — they’re two of the most obvious successors to that reclusive genius — but Green is more mired in the dirt of everyday reality than Malick or even Nichols.

There are moments of disgusting evil in this film. When Wade happens upon a helpless vagrant hiding a bottle of wine, the promise of violence about to come is mighty uncomfortable, and made all the more disgusting as Wade lulls the vagrant to put down his guard by telling him a fictional story of an ailing wife. But there’s also levity here. A drunken escapade that Joe and Gary take to find Joe’s lost bulldog is a riot, and a reminder of Green’s interest in unconventional buddy films.

Joe may not by as immensely pleasurable as Mud, but it’s a strong film with some perceptive thoughts about masculinity and alcoholism. If David Gordon Green were to keep making films of this caliber, and Nic Cage to keep giving performances this good, I’d be mighty happy, and most filmgoers should be as well.

8 out of 10

Joe (2013, USA)

Directed by David Gordon Green; written by Gary Hawkins based off the novel by Larry Brown; starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Ronnie Gene Blevins, and Gary Poulter.

Joe played on Sept. 9 and 10 and plays again on Sept. 14 during the Toronto International Film Festivalas part of the Special Presentations program.