Sydney Film Festival Review: Joe (USA, 2014)

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In life we are more often than not reactive creatures, responding to our environment and those around us. Sometimes the unlikeliest of people and the most random of circumstances can shape our lives, in both good and bad ways. Based on the novel by Larry Brown and directed by David Gordon Green, Joe is the story of a hardened ex-con who befriends a teenage boy and together they attempt to bring purpose and direction to their lives.

There are a number of themes running through this film, action, reaction, consequence, redemption and a coming of age. The first people we meet is Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his drunk abusive father Wade (Gary Poulter). Gary is a smart kid, and considering he’s probably never been to school, he’s wiser than his father. His family including his just-as-useless mother and his mute sister drift into town, homeless and looking for work. Gary happens to meet Joe (Nicolas Cage) and asks to work for him and his foresting crew that poison trees. Joe is tough as nails but fair and honest, and well-liked in the small southern community even though he has a rough past and an ongoing feud with a local scarred tough guy called Willie. Whether Joe sees himself in Gary, or a potential to just assist somebody in need, he decides to help the teenager out and soon turns into his mentor. The friendship that evolves between Gary and Joe is rooted in respect and honesty, Gary is prepared to work hard and earn his way, seeing Joe as possibly the older brother or father figure he needs at such a crucial time in his young life. Joe is a lonely soul, seeking the occasional fleeting company of local prostitutes and living his life day-to-day, but having Gary around gives him something or someone to focus his attention on. In a lot of ways they need each other equally, to ensure stability in their complicated lives.

Tye Sheridan is wonderful, he embodies the troubled but determined Gary. Whether it’s the downtrodden smacked-around son of a drunk, or the aggressively defensive young man prepared to beat down a stranger who threatens his sister. For somebody who has previously only had two other roles prior to this (‘Mud’ and ‘The Tree of Life’) he’s showing the true range of a gifted young actor. His growth and evolution as Gary comes full circle and it’s evident in the beginning and closing scenes that both feature him in it. A young man at a crossroads in life with the potential to turn into the same dark monster as his father, but resolute to be better than that; Sheridan’s depiction is believable and is the crux of his coming-of-age story.

Surprisingly though it’s Gary Poulter who plays the abusive drunk father Wade, who manages to almost steal every scene he’s in with his vitriol and evil portrayal. Poulter was a homeless man who’d never acted before and was recruited by director Green for the part, and he sadly passed away only a couple of months after shooting finished. Every single time we see Wade beat down his son and steal his money, we are shown a man without remorse or care; we are never given any indication as to what made him this way, only that he is and has no intention of changing. He symbolises all that is evil and wrong in this world, and is as wild, venomous and treacherous as the deadly snake we see Joe handle early on in the film.

Personally I’ve been a long-time fan of Nicolas Cage’s work, and Joe is quite honestly up there alongside his Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation roles. The character of Joe is evidently troubled, and we can see that from the get go. We see the different shades of Joe’s personality and Cage’s interpretation come through in the interactions with the people around him. As a caring friend and mentor to Gary, as the firm but fair boss to his crew of forest workers, or as the angry violent unrestrained criminal when he fights with Willie. There are so many facets to the character, and Cage manages to bring every single one out with a flair and touch all his own.

Green’s direction and the cinematography from his long-time working partner Tim Orr also puts us right in the heart of this world. It’s brutal and violent and dirty and unrelenting but it’s reality. We’re given up close and intimate shaky cam moments when the action moves fast, or long slow close ups to give us time to reflect on a character. We’re dumped in this middle of nowhere town somewhere in southern America, it’s so isolated it feels cut off from the rest of the world and left to fend for itself. Populated by simple people eking out a miserable life fuelled by cigarettes, alcohol, gambling, hunting and sex. Joe’s house is simply furnished but messy like all good bachelor pads, Gary’s house is a condemned old shack that they squat in. The corner store is jam packed with every possible need anybody could require, stacked to the ceiling in a cluttered mess. The forest that they work in is on the outskirts of town, wild and unforgiving in the searing heat or pouring rain. Apart from Cage and Sheridan, all the other actors in this film are sourced locals, these are all real people, in real places, in an all too real world.

For both Cage and Green, Joe heralds a return to form. The former returning to more serious and introspective character-focused roles, the latter returning to the indie-filmmaker scene that favours tone and character over plot. Cage has had a rollercoaster career but he has never been one to shy away from things that are outside of the box. Green also had a promising start with directing in George Washington and All The Real Girls before a slight odd detour in Pineapple Express and Your Highness before swinging back to do Prince Avalanche and now Joe. This film is definitely not your casual Sunday night viewing. At times both dark and violent but also earnest and funny; it slowly builds its characters so that their inevitable and ultimate redemption by the end feels earned; but overall it’s a bleak but brutally candid reflection of humanity.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Joe is screening as part of the Sydney Film Festival, encore screenings are on Monday 9th and Friday 13th June, for more information or to purchase tickets visit their website here

You can also see an exclusive The AU Review/The Iris interview with David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage here

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Carina Nilma

Office lackey day-job. Journalist for The AU Review night-job. Emotionally invested fangirl.

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