Movie Review: 'Joe' (2013)

A visceral depiction of backwoods life that is authentically searing and hauntingly exasperating. Director David Gordon Green picks up where he left off with his last film “Prince Avalanche”, a slow, character driven drama that drops actors amidst the fray of ordinary people.

“Joe” is somber and comparisons to last year’s indie favorite “Mud” are quickly dispelled as the enchanting whimsy of boyhood that defined the former never breathes in the proximity of the stark realism that conjures “Joe”.

Opening the film is a scene of disturbing dialogue exchange between young Gary (Tye Sheridan), and his clearly intoxicated father (Gary Poulter). Cue to a bizarre scene of violence that goes unexplained, as the film switches narratives to the eponymous Joe (Nicolas Cage).

Joe runs a work crew that poisons trees so they can be cleared away for development. When Gary asks Joe about employing him and his father, their fates become intertwined.

What follows is an unnerving tour through the dark side of humanity. Gary suffers the wrath of his abusive father and is in desperate need of an adult intervention. Joe whose sporadic temper flares throughout the film seems to fit the bill of Gary’s presumed savior.

For reasons that become clear much later in the movie, Joe hesitates to act immediately and G-Daawg (Gary’s father) continues his reign of terror on both his family and the community. As he commits atrocious crimes, one can’t help think about how preventable they are. 

Why there isn’t even a mention made that Social Services or another government official could intervene on Gary’s behalf is troubling. The film encourages Joe’s sentiment of distrust and while, there are no easy answers there are more in supply than the single-mindedness of the film lets on.

As bleak as the movie and its subject matter is, it emits an atmospheric magnetism that holds interest. The key to this achievement lies with Nicolas Cage’s astonishing performance as the guarded Joe. It is the best character he’s had in years and he seizes the opportunity for all its worth.

Cage once again demonstrates his vast skill in subtle displays of emotion and heady solemnity, disappearing into character at an outstanding range. As Gary, Tye Sheridan brings the validity he demonstrated in “Mud” to “Joe” with tragic resonance.

The aspect that sets “Joe” apart is just how real it feels, uncomfortably and unflinchingly so. David Gordon Green builds a cast of non-professional actors around the established talent. This tactic blurs the lines of reality, making it difficult to stay footed in the fiction and to an extent it is distracting.

It also makes it hard to dismiss as invention. Gary Poulter who portrays Gary’s father was a homeless man battling alcoholism when he was cast and he passed away before the film was released.

There is a point where “Joe” becomes incredibly frustrating and a lot of that has to do with it feeling so voyeuristic, heightening the stakes exponentially. To its credit, it tells a story unfiltered by Hollywood idealism. There’s just too much darkness to hint at light as it consumes whatever beams dare to flicker into the ether. Rating: 7/10