Joe is the first Nicolas Cage film in a number of years that is not also a cheaply-produced thriller filmed in either New Orleans or eastern Europe. Instead, it’s an independently made Southern drama from David Gordon Green, who also returns to his indie roots after a series of Hollywood comedies. But Joe ain’t no boring tempered drama about childhood and coming-of-age; it’s loose and hot and messy and wildly entertaining. There are scenes of Nic Cage yelling at a dog for being an “asshole” and an old drunk white hillbilly teaching his son about breakdancing. Perhaps Green has lost some of his deftness during his time in Hollywood, but Joe is refreshingly audacious.
Nicolas Cage plays the title character, a hard living Mississippi man who takes a young man, Gary (Tye Sheridan), under his wing. He gives him a job, killing trees with poison so they can be removed and replaced, but the young man’s father, an abusive alcoholic bum, does everything he can to ruin it. Gary’s father, as far as I can tell, is named “G-Daawg” (based on the back of a sweater he wears), and the actor who plays him gives the best performance in the film. I can’t figure out the identity of that actor, but he may very well have been handpicked off the streets of Mississippi, along with many of the other actors in the film.
David Gordon Green’s previous Southern drama, Undertow, had a certain pastoral grace to it. But Joe feels closer to Harmony Korine’s Gummo, letting the film follow interesting human beings in a manner that feels unscripted, allowing violence to emerge unexpectedly. Green’s vision of Mississippi is dirty and diverse, like Beasts of the Southern Wild without the facile sentiment. Joe spends his time amongst the working poor: the rednecks with Confederate flags hanging in their bars, the black men that make up Joe’s team of tree-killers, prostitutes, drifters and the homeless. As Joe and Gary grow closer, it’s done over a montage of drunk driving. Even Cage, one of Hollywood’s least predictable actors, feels too sleek and practiced for this daunting landscape, but that’s just nitpicking.
Joe premiered on Monday, but you can catch it at the Elgin Theatre on Saturday at 2:30pm.
Alan Jones writes about film for Toronto Standard. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanjonesxxxv.