By Jacob Mertens.
To call Joe anything but a return to form for director David Gordon Green would be a disservice. And that has nothing to do with how terrible his recent spate of films have been, save for the uneven but affecting Prince Avalanche (2013). Instead, it has to do with a style the director began to establish with his first two films, George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003)—blending casual dialogue, elliptical editing, and a heightened level of attention to the surrounding environment—creating a hyper-natural aesthetic, a kind of spirited interpretation of realism. With Undertow (2004) and Snow Angles (2007), the director began to drift from his artistic tendencies, and along with some growing pains in terms of the style, both films relied more on dramatic events to carry the viewing experience, preempting individual moments of detail in the process. Still, they were singular films and not without their merits. With the work that followed though, from Pineapple Express (2008) to The Sitter (2011), Green’s filmmaking approach was overtaken by a cloying need to be likeable and funny. For all those who heralded last year’s Prince Avalanche as a modest triumph, I personally found it only a shaky reentry into a fashion of filmmaking the director had once been on the edge of perfecting. Thus we come to the phrase “return to form,” which in this case quite literally places Joe within the aesthetic formal design of Green’s early cinematic triumphs. The film has its shortcomings, sure, but on a whole it reinvigorates the once and future promising career of a fledgling film auteur.
Joe centers on the titular Joe (played by a scruffy Nicholas Cage), an alcoholic, ex-con lumber foreman with a penchant for both vice and unabashed sincerity. He’s a man most either take an immediate liking or disliking to, and in the latter case his short temper quickly turns that dislike into hostility. For instance, in an early scene the irascible Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) catches a beating from Joe after mouthing off to him at a bar. The fight stands on its own with little context to ground it, until Willie tracks Joe down the next day with a rifle in tow, firing off a shot that clips the man’s shoulder. Joe reels back, scampers for his revolver and returns fire, but Willie has since sped off down the road in a pick-up truck. Rather than bother the authorities, drive to a hospital, or pursue the man, Joe covers his wound and sparks a cigarette, then moves on with his day like nothing happened. Later that evening, in a gruff display of masculinity, he pours liquor into the wound and digs the bullet out with his fingers.
In contrast to this calm display of violence, Joe strikes up a friendship with a young boy who wanders onto the lumber yard looking for work. Gary (Tye Sheridan) is a scant fifteen years old and is built like a scarecrow, but he takes to his new job with zeal. Soon, Joe learns the young man works to support his family, while his father Wade (Gary Poulter) steals most of his earnings and squanders it as an insensate drunk. Nettled by the father’s cruelty—seen soon after his introduction, when he cuffs Gary and pockets his first week’s wages—Joe takes the boy under his wing and tries to protect him. Gary then gravitates to Joe as a polar authority to his father, though he clearly ignores the ways Joe is like Wade. Without overstating the connection, the film uses these two characters as a scale of regression. Joe often seems numb to the world, though he is stirred by violent outbursts and lust. Even so, he maintains a humane temperament, skewed as it sometimes is, which elevates him from the common drunk. He buys Gary’s family groceries, he treats every employee under his care with a stern respect, and he even takes in a young woman who seeks refuge from an abusive father-in-law (although admittedly he is sleeping with her, which complicates whatever good will is in the act). Without his convictions as a moral man, Joe would find himself a downturn away from oblivion, a state that Wade knows well.
With all that said, and as compelling as the convergence of violence and tenderness is in the film, Joe‘s strength lies less in the narrative seen as a whole and more in Green’s construction of individual events. For instance, consider a parallel action sequence filmed before Gary meets Joe in the forest and asks him for work. Joe meets with his crew and the film slows to take in the nuances of their job: poisoning trees in order to raze the forest and grow stronger saplings. While it does so, the film cuts briefly to impressionistic shots of Gary traipsing through the forest, sharpening a stick into a spear, and meandering into a small graveyard seemingly placed in the middle of nowhere. We see these shots before we know who Gary is, and they take the tone of childhood nostalgia, of that idle freedom to explore and gaze in wonder at the world. However, when Gary meets Joe and inquires about work, he postures as a grown man and that is how he is seen through the rest of the film, as a child forced into adulthood at age fifteen. Keeping that idea in mind, those early shots of a boy with no name or purpose, contrasted by shots depicting the gritty minutia of hard labor, form a glimpse into a lost childhood. In other words, since the sequence focuses less on coherent narrative events and more on narrative concepts, it takes advantage of Green’s spare style in order to convey subtle meaning. In so doing, the director displays a maturity in his work that really hasn’t been seen since his debut feature George Washington.
For all the praise I would like to give Joe though, I must also admit to a perceived flaw in the film. Namely, there are momentary lapses in which the narrative seems to gather itself and seek thematic clarity, and in so doing upends its own incongruous beauty. The most glaring example would be when Joe’s lover, Connie (Adriene Mishler; i.e. the woman seeking refuge mentioned earlier), delivers a voice over address of a conversation she is having with Joe while he feigns sleep. In this monologue, she grieves for the life they might share together if only he were a man who could live long-term with anyone. She speaks eloquently and as a storm stirs in the background, the scene unfolds like a prophecy. It’s a beautiful moment, I won’t argue that, but it’s also a moment that has the pointed feel of authorial intent. It pushes the audience into a specific line of thematic inquiry, instead of letting the other individual scenes speak for themselves—which they easily could. In fact, one of the most staggering moments in the entire film, in which Wade tries to cajole a homeless man to share his wine, has no relevant consequence to the rest of the film. There is no cause and effect at play, only a moment of insight. And yet, without getting into specifics, I would argue that this interaction tells more about the world Green has created than any found in the narrative chain of events.
If I sound overly critical on this point, it is because I see great potential in the rest of the film. And yet, when Green’s storytelling becomes pronounced it also becomes (somewhat) conventionalized. But it’s a small gripe in what is otherwise a brilliant feature that foments a sinister mood, creating unrest in the quiet moments, as if violence could break out at any moment. For that matter, Nicholas Cage has not been this convincing in a role since his scene-chewing turn in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (2009). In Joe though, Cage curtails his manic energy and plays the character quiet, reminding audiences that he can act without relying on stock mannerisms and act well. It takes Cage’s understated portrayal to keep the film from drifting into melodrama, and to substantiate the director’s style of filmmaking. After all, the events in Joe feel overwhelming at times, but they retain a sense of authenticity because they are presented with the same level of detail as seemingly inconsequential diversions. This is Green’s greatest asset as a director, and after a bizarre foray into Hollywood comedy his convincing return to drama defies a common truism. Indeed, if Joe is any indication for it, it would seem that you can go home again after all.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor of Film International.