Dr. Donna Copeland’s
NICHOLAS CAGE TYE SHERIDAN
Nicholas Cage might not approve of the word comeback, but after taking a year off and delivering a string of commercially and critically unsuccessful films the former action star returns to his independent roots. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, All the Real Girls) also looks back upon his beginnings with Joe, which takes a hard look at a small isolated community of poverty, addiction and male inferiority. Portions of the film that focus on the drunken fights and prostitution feel more like a dramatized episode of the Jerry Springer show. Cage admits he returned from his hiatus to do this role based on the limited amount of “acting” and more focus on just being the character. Joe might seem reminiscent of last years Mud, and Green admits he is friendly with Joe Nichols and, obviously Sheridan is along for both pictures.
Joe Ransom (Cage) is known for two things: his ability to hire day labors for killing trees and planting new ones and his violent temper. Gary (Sheridan) is nearly destitute and constantly hungry due to the shack his family lives in and his abusive, alcoholic father. Joe agrees to let Gary work; he is dedicated and honest and that appeals to Joe, who has had his own rough times and given a hand and a pass from the local sheriff. Both men seem unable to escape the darkness that is trying to prohibit their success; Joe got in a fight with a local at a bar who is now trying to kill him. Gary’s father, desperate for his next drink, beats up his son and steals his weekly earnings for the next drink.
The first hour of the film Green details the nasty side of backwoods Texas. It’s unglamorous, dirty and often disgusting. There is a scene between two old drunk men that looks more like the interaction between two zombies in a horror film. Green is very focused on the gritty part of this story, showing how one man will go to great lengths to get what he wants. The women, dogs, houses and even bars are so filthy you can almost smell them through the screen. The world Green creates here seems hopeless and lacking any type of salvation (only the police have decent employment). Yet when Joe and Gary create a bond and even drive around town looking for Joe’s dog (while drinking behind the wheel), it’s as if for a moment time stands still for both of them.
From the beginning Joe always seems like it is hurling towards some tragic fate (Mud felt the same way). We never really understand what Joe wants, and he doesn’t either, which is the feeling of unrest Cage exhibits. The sheriff is trying to save Joe, Joe is trying to save Gary, and Gary is trying to save himself. Yet as the film drags on from one grueling scene to another, I asked myself what Green was actually trying to say with this piece; what am I supposed to be taking away from here? The film never provided me with an answer, and perhaps it’s because it never gives you a real reason to care about the questions it’s asking.
Final Thought – A step in the right direction for Cage, but a boring ride for the audience.
By: Dustin Chase
Nicholas Cage is back! Which shows that if he gets a good script, he has the acting chops to pull it off. And perhaps the director has something to do with it as well. David Gordon Green likes three-dimensional characters in which deep emotions and conflicts visibly surge through. In his movies, we are treated to a wide range of emotions—not just the heavy duty ones, but playful, caring, and humorous kinds as well. In this one, I’m thinking of the title character Joe’s (Cage) work team, where there is a close bond among them that is serious and playful at the same time. That is true in Prince Avalanche, his previous film, as well, when the Paul Rudd character finally got loosened up.
Character development is one of Green’s strengths, and I like the way he shows change and maturity across time in at least some of his characters. But he also seems to play with scenes in the cutting room. Frequently, the next scene comes on verbally before the visual scene is let go. I think part of it must be that he is having a little fun, but it may also be an attempt to demonstrate how interconnected people are with one another, either in their likenesses or their conflicts. It may also have something to do with the depth and complexity of his thinking; his films are noteworthy for the synchronization of the story, the music, the camera, and the characters, which makes them thought provoking. Music by Jeff McIlwain and cinematography by Tim Orr heighten the quality of Joe.
I was intrigued by the character Joe and Nicholas Cage’s interpretation of him. He is a mixture in so many ways it becomes one of the main sources of his conflicts. He has insight, and has clearly learned something from his mistakes, yet at times something compelling grips him inside and he is helpless to control his impulses. “”What keeps me alive is restraint”, he says. “It keeps me out of jail and keeps me from hurting people.” But he does not have access to that restraint when he sees meanness being done toward others or toward himself. He agonizes about injustice, but the ways he chooses to deal with it reflect a background in which aggression rather than reasoning is used to solve problems. The need for that level of restraint is also at some cost, because it sabotages his ability to form a loving relationship with a woman, and he is clearly lonely.
And that seems to be some of what this film is about; there is one type of male psyche that is filled with unmet needs, so aggression and violence become a way of life. In this film, we see it in Joe, in his apparently life-long enemy, Willy (Ronnie Gene Blevins), in the father of the boy Joe is trying to protect, and in some of the police officers. There is not much room in such a community for the feminine influence; the women around these characters are weak and ineffectual in dealing with the men. It is painful to see Joe’s protégé, Gary (Tye Sheridan) wrestling with what he knows is sensible, but the adult males around him are a big influence. There was another way to approach a major problem toward the end of the film, but it did not dawn on any of them. One wonders which path Gary will take; but somewhere along the way he has acquired a sense of justice and reason, and maybe it will be enough to make him choose a different path from those he has seen from father figures.
By the way, Sheridan has had significant success in playing a similar role in Tree of Life and Mud; he is probably ready to launch into something different that will demonstrate his talent in other types.
Although achingly violent at times, this is a fine example of a culture of violence that is still all too prevalent in our world.
Dr. Donna sits down with cast and crew at SXSW