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Released: 2014

Directed By: David Gordon Green

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ty Sheridan

Certificate: 15

Reviewed By: Rohan Morbey

The back woods of Austin, Texas. A place devastated by poverty, homelessness, and filled with an anger which can no longer be restrained. This is the setting for David Gordon Green’s naturalistic and excellent Joe, a film sadly tucked away on VOD but one which deserves a wide audience.

Gary (Ty Sheridan), a 15 year old boy, lives in an abandoned and condemned house with his mother, mute sister, and Wade, his abusive, drunk father. Gary is quickly becoming a man, leaving the innocence of youth far behind him as he looks for any work he can find to support his family and make something of himself. Whilst walking through the woods he stumbles across a group of men cutting down trees for cash; far from professional tree fellers, the men gather every day when the weather allows for it, as their leader Joe (Nicolas Cage) decides who gets work. He picks them up in his knackered truck and he drops them off. Joe is a man they look up to and respect, and soon Gary and Joe forge a relationship which has long been missing in the boy’s life.

The subtlety of the screenplay from Gary Hawkins (his debut feature film script) allows for the film to organically build on the foreboding sense of hopelessness and the unavoidable collision-course on which Joe, Gary, and Wade are on before the film begins. Joe is a masculine, aggressive, and heartbreaking study of a small group of men, isolate from the rest of the world and it moves at the pace of the location its set in; slow, unhurried, and never rushed. This isn’t a film where each scene exists to progress the plot, but often exist to coax the audience into this real world, but one which might seem alien to many viewers, such as myself.

The screenplay is paired with Green’s expert attention and obvious affection for the setting. Naturalism seeps through in every scene, whether it be Green’s hand held camera work, never flashy or showy yet often strikingly beautiful (he clearly evokes a Malick-like quality in his love of nature seen here and in Prince Avalanche and Snow Angels), or in the performances from all involved, from Oscar winning Nicolas Cage to non-professional street performers like Gary Poulter (as Wade) or the entire African American crew who work for Joe. The grounded subject matter allows for Cage to give his best performance by far since 2009’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (breaking a streak of 9 sub-par movies) and his most restrained since World Trade Centre a year before. Watching Joe should remind those who think of Cage as a joke or whose career is just a collection of internet compilations taken out of context of the qualities he has when choosing the right material, something he hasn’t been doing for a few years. When the material is right, no one can touch him and I wouldn’t want to see anyone else in the lead role here.

After the film finished I had some slight reservations about the motivations of what Joe ends up doing in the second half of the film, but allow myself time to digest the film and think about Green and Hawkins’s way of telling this tale allowed me to see the film in a different way. It’s the fusion of surroundings and character which steers Joe into the path he takes, as if he is no longer in control of his own destiny but is saving Gary from making the same mistakes. The rage Joe has inside him is amassed from being a product of his environment, a broken, downtrodden soul who has no future outside of these woods. The same can be said of Wade and Willie-Russell, the man who is Joe’s nemesis in the picture stemming from a fight which broke out in a bar before the film begins; a fight which began, I assume, because the men wanted to fight. They needed to let out some anger one way or another.

Joe is, as you can gather, a firm favourite of mine this year. It’s a film which absolutely deserves to be seen and respected as much as Jeff Nichols’s similar Mud was last year and I hope it begins a resurgence of Nicolas Cage’s career because he more than deserves it, and we deserve more from him. Joe is an excellent way to start.

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