Directed by: David Gordon Green
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene
The cinematic characteristics of the Deep South have never been particularly positive. Within its hot and perpetually heated environment are numerous small-town societies, many plagued by poverty, rooted by racism, guided by god, and dazed by drink. It is in to this rural milieu that director David Gordon Green returns with Joe, his first proper foray back to the Southern-set dramas he founded his career upon. Like those, Joe is at its most powerful when painting a portrait of the rough realities attributed to life in the Deep South. However, the film slowly unravels once amalgamated with its scattershot narrative, turning moments of affecting drama into an ineffective whole.
Though he may have been away from such serious fare for a while, Green certainly still knows how to handle such potent material and wastes no time before immersing you within this impoverished world; even choosing to forego a title sequence and establishing shot. Instead we open on the back of a young man’s head as he stares towards his drunk and dishevelled father. Having told his old man at length how much of a burden his drink has become, the boy is dealt an almighty slap in the face. The victim of this undeserved aggression is Gary, whose determination to help fend for his family is constantly marred by his father’s insatiable quest for drink. However, a chance meeting with a local ex-con and improbable role model named Joe offers Gary an opportunity to turn his life around.
Given the speed with which Green composes himself during this opening, it almost feels anticlimactic when the pace suddenly becomes more controlled. Yet, it is here that Gary Hawkins’ script embodies much of its strength. Shifting the focus away from the story and on to the characters, the film soon develops in to sensitively handled study of life in America’s poverty-stricken South.
Central to this are two distinctively different but equally commanding performances. Ditching his more familiar blend of exaggerated emotion for something far more understated, Nicolas Cage burns bright as the eponymous mentor to Tye Sheridan’s vulnerable but spirited Gary. Throughout, Cage permeates the film with a melancholic air that darkens the film’s tone, while also emitting naturalistic quirks that make Joe relatable and curiously amusing. His approach is consistently balanced, building a character that’s authentically rough around the edges and yet imbued with a sensitive core. Having watched Cage spend far too much of his last 5 years characterized with a poorly rendered burning skull for a head, it’s eminently refreshing to see him commanding the screen once again and a welcome reminder of how striking a presence he can be when focused.
Sheridan meanwhile, is profoundly compelling as the boy determined to get his life back on track before he reaches adulthood. Though his plight may not be the most original, the young actor injects enough heart and honesty to make it feel emotively poignant. A quality that is further expressed through Green’s decision to cast real-life drifter Gary Poulter in the role of Sheridan’s alcoholic father. Tragically, Poulter was found dead on the streets of Austin 2 months after the film wrapped; heartbreakingly affirming in reality just how dangerous and destructive this world that you are observing can be.
Collaborating once again with cinematographer Tim Orr, Green vividly brings the Deep South to life. Fused with Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo’s subtly ominous score, Orr’s brooding aesthetic evokes a perpetual sense of uncertainty that mirrors the instability of Joe and Gary’s world. However, what makes Green and Orr’s approach so admirable is their awareness of the South’s natural beauty, which the pair intuitively utilise to create a delicate sense of irony.
The problem though, is that Hawkins’ script doesn’t quite know where to take its characters once they’ve been established. In his attempts to intertwine so many different aspects of Southern life, the writer’s narrative soon descends from straightforward and concentrated to contrived and convoluted. The tone messily interchanges between restrained drama and rapid thriller, producing an imbalance within the film’s pace that causes it to become more and more ineffectual as it develops. By the time we reach his go for broke finale, much of the sturdy foundation laid during the film’s quietly commanding first half is lost. A final gut-punching twist falls frustratingly flat.
Indeed, the only character that survives untainted by the script’s flaws is the Deep South itself, its vast and wondrous landscape forever instilled with a defining aura of darkness.