Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Joe (2014)

Dir. David Gordon Green
Viewed: From the Couch


I’d heard plenty about Joe leading up to this viewing. Not only was it being called a continued return to form for director David Gordon Green (coming less than a year after Prince Avalanche), just as many words were being written about Nicolas Cage’s performance as the titular character. Cage and Green are certainly not an expected pairing. Even the outliers in their respective careers (and at this point Cage may have more outliers than inliers) wouldn’t lead anyone to expect a collaboration - certainly not one that works as well as Joe does. Say what you will about David Gordon Green’s dalliances with the Hollywood studio system, he has always been a master of tone - even when dealing with medieval dick jokes. Harnessing the powers of Nicolas Cage’s screen presence into something resembling a human may be a crowning achievement of sorts for Green.

For the first time in a while, it would seem, Cage is acting instead of giving one of those flamboyant performance-pieces that he seems to channel out of the ether to make otherwise unwatchable movies perversely entertaining. (That Green’s next film is starring Al Pacino could lead one to believe that Pacino’s agent took note?) His Joe is well rooted within the first half hour of the film as he expertly shepherds his crew of tree-poisoners, helps his friends manage some literal in-house butchering and patrons the local whorehouse.

But the tone of the film, one of highly tuned menace and impending doom, is well established by Green in the opening three minutes of the film. We’re introduced to 15 year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, who after this and Mud is making quite the name for himself as the go-to actor for a wayward teenager in search of a father-figure) and his poisonous, drunk dad Wade (Gary Poulter). It’s a tense bit of business as Gary calmly lays into his father over his drinking and continuously ruining their prospects. Wade responds by slugging his son and purposefully walking up a hill to take the beating he has coming to him for whatever his past discretion was.

David Gordon Green found Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died shortly after filming his role as Wade, and he gives one of the more haunting performances in recent memory. Green has always had a habit of casting local non-actors for his films but I don’t think he’s ever captured something like what Poulter bring to Joe. Wade’s threatening presence is felt even when he’s not on screen stealing his son’s hard-earned money or another sad-sack’s booze. And when he is on screen, like all real-life drunks, he hovers between a pathetic mess and an evil animal. As someone who spent too much time with his own drunk dad, it’s unnervingly uncanny.

At the halfway point of the film, after he has given Gary a job in his crew and is deciding on whether to betray his instincts and further intervene, Joe gives a mini-monologue of sorts that Green sets to one of his typically impressive montages. Joe tells his girlfriend that restraint is what has kept him alive so far and that doing the right thing, stepping-in to help Gary, doesn’t mean their story will have a happy ending. “Do you think I have a move here?” Joe asks, incredulously. Part of what makes Joe such a good character is his self-awareness. He knows his strengths and his weaknesses and it’s a good bit of acting that Cage can sell this character as confidently as he does.

Of course Joe does step-in and take Gary under his wing. Thankfully there’s many, albeit brief, moments of humor in the film and a few of the best come from Joe trying to teach Gary some life lessons from his own peculiar book of rules. His instructions on how to make a cool face, “Hold the pain, smile through it,” is a particular delight (and reportedly improvised)... “Stand like you own land.” But even in these moments there is a sense that Joe knows he doesn’t have much time with Gary. Try to make a difference in this world they live in and something wicked will surely this way come. By this point Joe’s already taken a bullet from a predatory asshole he tried to straighten out in a bar fight so this kind of interference is bound to bring even worse.

This is David Gordon Green working squarely in his sweet spot. Those who long for his George Washington days will find plenty of that film’s leisurely paced scenes in D.P. Tim Orr's gorgeously shot fields of ruin. All that’s missing to really tie this film in as a finishing trilogy to George Washington and Undertow would be Gary’s casual voice-over narration - but the film is all the better for sticking to the ominous melodies of Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo (who has contributed music to all three films including working with McIlwain on spiritual cousin, Mud).

So Paddy, what are your impressions of Joe? I’m particularly interested in your thoughts on the ending. (And one of these days I want to get around to having a discussion about the power of a good or bad ending and how it can ruin a good movie or salvage a mediocre one.) If there’s one detriment to a movie that telegraphs and builds towards a grim conclusion it’s that you can get to feeling like it really has to deliver on it. For the most part I think it did, though, aside from my struggling with this feeling of it all happening more or less as expected, I have some issues with Ronnie Gene Belvins being a little too actory with his predatory asshole character - which feels like it is really saying something given that he’s acting alongside Nic Cage. But I must say I quite enjoyed watching him get interrupted by Joe while trying once again to bring up his experience with that windshield he didn’t give a fuck about.


So I hate to spoil the good vibes we had after our Ida review, but I had a difficult time with this one. I think Joe has some strengths – the deliberateness with which Green handles the scenes of the men working in the forests, a few of the set pieces between Cage and Sheridan (they do have some real chemistry, though Sheridan is on the road to -ish likability and would probably have good chemistry with anyone) and the tremendous sense of place created by the location shooting – but this was a real slog to get through.

I suppose we should start with Cage himself, whom I’ve never cared much about, either in the sense that he was a wasted talent or in the ironic way people rush about to see his horrible movies. He does better than expected here, and doesn’t look comical with a beard and flannel shirt, but the presence of Cage still overwhelms the more subtle and nuanced film Green is aiming for. This doesn’t have to be the case: McConaughey in Mud (I’ll come back to this comparison, which is not flattering) or Stiller in Greenberg, or whoever Tarantino drags out of the 70s, all seem to inhabit real people, while here the persona that is Nick Cage completely subsumes whatever real person Joe is supposed to be; you could have picked a New York stage actor at random and had a more moving and touching film.

Few actors I think would need such cliché early shots of realness (the distracting reliance on cigarettes, booze, dogs, guns and brothels) to establish him as a bona tough guy, or the absurd action-movie scene of him healing his own gunshot wound. We see Cage as a part-time drunk and chain smoker, yet he still looks in great shape. He even can smoke cigarettes in the pouring rain. And I’m not sure if it was the script, Green, or Cage’s vanity that required establishing Joe’s sexual acumen, but the scenes with his various women at the whorehouse and the girl shacking up with him at home seemed so jarring with the otherwise sensitive tone of the film. Yes, Joe is a beaten down old man who smokes and drinks constantly, but he’s still a great lover!

While Cage is the most prominent acting problem here, he only slightly eclipses Ronnie Gene Blevins, who you note might be laying it on a bit thick. I can’t speak to his overall talent, but I don’t see what else he was supposed to do given his less-than-fleshed-out role as guy with a scar who has a feud with the good guy (what was their beef about again…I forgot before the credits finished rolling). This is a character merely introduced to have something happen in the plot. Aside from doing absurd things like wiping down his shotgun prior to picking it up again and throwing it in a creek, he just pops up to have things for Joe to do. Their history is barely sketched out, as is the whole history of Joe himself. We learn far too late in the film about his proclivity for beating up cops, but there is no real depth to his supposed issues – I can’t imagine anyone caring about what happens to him at the end. While Mud delivered a complex character with a fully realized history and motivation, Joe gives us two guys shooting at each other because…well, because they have to shoot at each other to get the film to its ending. It’s astonishing that Mud’s island-dweller who is looking to rebuild a boat is a far more believable and three-dimensional character than Joe’s average dude who works, drinks beer, and smokes cigarettes.

I’m more ambivalent about Poulter, who is genuinely scary. I think it borders on exploitation to cast him in this role, but there is no denying the fact that his character is believable, and he provides more than enough to get you to empathize with Gary and his sister (though the murdering of a fellow homeless man to get some wine was gratuitous – we get that he’s horrible). The problem for me was that he was in some sense too real, and the reaction when he was on screen was close to what happens when a truly disturbed (and possibly threatening) homeless approaches you in real life – you’re disgusted and want to get away as quickly as possible. I simply did not want to watch the movie when he was on screen, and not in a way like, say, legendary cringe-worthy figures like Bill Maplewood from Happiness. Maybe it’s not Green’s job to humanize such a monster – they no doubt exist – but Wade as played by Poulter seems to reflect every worst thought I have about a homeless drunk. Maybe it’s true, and maybe its true (as for Gary's mom) that some homeless people really would be delighted and baffled by a mechanical alarm clock, but I would hope a goal of the film would be to add more complexity to characters and not to confirm gut reactions and instincts.

Whether it is the acting, the original story, or Green’s directorial and editing choices, the lives of these characters (Gary aside) simply never came alive for me. Aside from the well-chosen locals who chopped the trees, butchered the deer, and worked the convenience store, I was always aware that I was watching a film, its devices and motivations were all too transparent; its efforts to induce empathy fell flat. I was bored. At the end, when Gary is talking with his new employer, in a shot that beautifully echoes and inverts the first scene of the film, I so wanted to follow Joe in its story of a moral lesson of good hard work over the lures of alcoholism and hate, but so many things got in the way for the previous 100 minutes that I just wanted it to end. 

The problem may be in the title itself: why is it called Joe, and not “Gary,” when the kid is the better actor, and has a more richly developed character? The kid arrives at Joe’s work already possessed of a hatred for Wade, ambition, and a work ethic to escape his roots, so why does he even need Joe? He's got nothing to learn, and Joe has nothing to teach him - the lessons on women and how to stand are superfluous; Gary has the important shit down cold from the first second he picks up an axe. As in so many of those “flamboyant performance-pieces” you mention, Cage’s character is pointless, and generally only helpful with a gun in his hand. Unfortunately, in this case, it distracted from an actual attempt to make a real movie.


I can't say I had any issues with Joe being about Joe. To me it felt like a film about a guy who has to make a choice and face the repercussions of that choice. I certainly didn't get this morality tale about good work over alcohol at all. I think everyone, even Gary, enjoys a drink in this movie (okay, except for the mail-lady). I don't think the movie is making the case that Wade is evil because of booze - I'd say it goes out of its way to not make that point. (Anyway, no one has, or will, put it any better than Homer Simpson did when he said it was "the cause and solution to all of life's problems".)

From the first scene, which shows Wade taking a beating for the unspoken transgression he's made, to the last being Joe getting his - it felt cohesive and on point throughout. If anything, Gary is the plot point character. He could have walked in from any dozen of other movies, yeah Mud being the most obvious one, and is the character who exists to get the machinations of the plot, however thin it may be, going.

As with Wade's beating, I liked that we don't have Joe and Ronnie Gene Blevins' (for the record, his character's name is Willie-Russell, not "predatory asshole") backstory spelled out for us. Joe punched him in a bar over something or other and after spending a minute with him Gary kicks the shit out of him too and the film doesn't make it difficult to believe that these things would happen to Willie-Russell, being as he is. Which is to say, an asshole (and a pretty dumb one as well - perhaps why he wipes a gun of before throwing it in the river?).

Getting into Joe himself, I can completely understand the casting of Nicolas Cage casting too large a shadow on the picture. Here's a guy with numerous websites and Tumblr pages devoted to his outsized personality. I'm not immune to it either. But in this case I bought it. As they say, every movie is owed a suspension of disbelief and David Gordon Green makes it easier than most. I actually have a much easier time buying Cage as Joe than I do (to use a related filmmaker) Richard Gere in Days of Heaven. Joe is the boss and not only does Gary not have a job (or a cool truck giving him hope, self-esteem, something to live for, etc.) without Joe but you get the idea that some of these other people under his employ might not have quite the same lives without him either.

I still feel the need to defend Joe's character just a little bit. I don't know where you picked up this "beaten down old man" idea from this movie. It makes a strong case in the early going that he's a pretty happy, respected guy (aside from this predatory asshole - but that's Texas and, speaking of which, do you think Joe has health insurance?) until this kid shows up and forces him to go down a road he'd rather not. Even after he gets shot, he isn't mopey or acting "beaten down" about it. In fact, he gives one of my favorite lines of the movie. His girlfriend asks, with him in bandages, bleeding and coughing, "Are you ok?" To which he replies, "I gotta quit smoking." From reading what I have about the film, there's little doubt that Cage improvised this line as well and it only adds to my appreciation to what he brings to the roll.

As far as Wade/Gary Poulter goes, my only tinge of worry comes from wether or not Poulter was too proud of the work he did and celebrated a bit too much, leading to his death. But none of this is for me to say. Gary Poulter was clearly someone completely different from Wade. I feel pretty certain he wouldn't be allowed within sight of the set of this film, never mind being cast and giving the performance he did, if he showed up to work like Wade does or was anything like this character he plays. Wade isn't homeless so I don't understand why you think his character represents your worst fear about homeless people. Instead I would admire that some homeless people have the capability of giving a film performance as well as Poulter does here. As far as drunks go, I think the scene (as nasty as it is, agreed) of Wade committing murder isn't as unnecessary as you think - if only to show how much Wade doesn't represent your typical drunk. Though I think it was important to show how far his evil ran - past lazy and abusive which is all that we witnessed before.

Well, I had only around a 50-50 feeling that you might get around the CageFactor of the film. I thought maybe, as I, you might harbor unending goodwill due to things like Raising Arizona, Birdy, Wild At Heart, Leaving Las Vegas, or even Bringing Out the Dead. As odd as he's gotten in the past let's say 15 years, I have always felt this weird "good intentions" thing about even the most misbegotten films he's ventured into. Granted, I haven't seen most of them, not even his quasi-misstep of most high regard, that Neil LaBute Wicker Man remake. But unlike a lot of actors who act in a lot of things (even those without crazy IRS debts like Cage) there tends to be an underlying respect for the craft with Nicolas Cage that sometimes has a difficulty shining through the muck. That is to say, even in the worst of movies, he doesn't half-ass things and people respect that. Maybe there is a percentage of fans that only like him ironically, but I think it is small and they are young and even the Tumblr pages don't really care about them.

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