Wednesday, July 02, 2014
JOE (David Gordon Green, 2013)
David Gordon Green’s JOE is the flip side of his previous film PRINCE AVALANCHE. Both Texas-set films are concerned with what defines a man. Where the latter pokes fun at the comic duo who venture into the wilderness to work and live off the land to connect with their masculinity, JOE sees it as a refuge that helps to keep the darker and destructive impulses in the male animal at bay.
Each morning Joe (Nicolas Cage) goes to the local grocery to pick up a crew to do a day’s hot, hard work. Equipped with hatchets that inject poison, Joe and his men are killing useless trees so the owner’s property can be cleared for stronger pines to be planted in their place. One day 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) appears in the field seeking a job for him and his dad. Noting the boy’s eagerness and background of manual labor, Joe takes him on not knowing that he’ll become more than an employee.
Gary’s family has drifted into town and taken up residence in a condemned house. His father Wade (Gary Poulter) is an abusive drunk who would rather steal the money his son earns than make an honest living himself. When Wade costs him and Gary their jobs, the boy turns to Joe for a second chance. Joe has sympathy for Gary, who he sees is desperate to escape the man who beats him. While he’s had his own run-ins with the law and troublemakers around town, Joe determines that it’s worth assisting Gary even if it may lead to a confrontation with Wade down the line.
Joe mentions that restraint is what is keeping him alive and out of jail. Cage lets the intensity seep out of his eyes as his character with a fuzzy past strives not to react as he’s inclined when feeling provoked. Cage plays Joe as if he’s engaged in a constant state of mental calculation to regulate the anger and violence he’s liable to lash out with. Although he doesn’t want to stand out, his thick beard functions as a signifier that he’s not to be messed with. He drives a battered, old GMC pick-up that he has no desire to trade in, probably because a new truck would attract more attention. Joe’s workers wear packs that make them resemble Ghostbusters, but he has no such equipment to help him fend off the demons that torment him daily.
Joe bemoans that there’s no longer any frontier, suggesting that he believes at one time a man like him could pick up and go to the untamed places where he might not be a danger to himself and others. For as much as he fears what he is capable of doing, others are drawn to him like strays to a welcoming home. Joe doesn’t intend to be a father figure, yet as he does in his work, he clears what is weak and expendable so that Gary may grow stronger where he is. While there’s a fatalistic sense about Joe’s actions, finding a purpose is where he seems most satisfied.
Green is more interested in mood than plot, so JOE isn’t as effective as a thriller as a more conventionally directed film might be. He maintains the tension through Cage’s performance and a soundtrack that responds according to his temperament. Green likes to soak up the atmosphere, prioritizing listening to guys shooting the breeze. It’s in these moments that he captures the spirits of the men better than direct depiction. Although the film meanders, everything is carefully in its place. The opening and closing scenes rhyme to emphasize the journey Gary has taken through knowing Joe. Because of his lack of discrimination in roles and penchant for playing unhinged characters, Cage can be viewed as something as a joke these days, but in JOE he shows that he can be more than a collection of tics and oddities if given the proper showcase.