Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Joe Review

Born from indie roots with his debut feature George Washington, moving into mainstream comedy with Pineapple Express and The Sitter, then back to indie again with Prince Avalanche and now another offering, Joe. David Gordon Green is a director that’s films really do cause some head-scratching. How does one move so effortlessly between such different films? Although his broader films are just that, they lack the intimacy or perhaps the signature touch of Green, his latest two haven’t. Joe is a good combination of director and material, putting his authorial stamp on an adaptation. Teaming together with regular cinematographer Tim Orr, reigning in a snake wrangling Nicolas Cage and employing the youthful Tye Sheridan alongside first-time or lesser known supporting actors, give this a real world feel while achieving a cinematic grittiness that keeps it atmospheric. It is first important to pay respect to Green’s directorial style. He found a talent in homeless man Gary Poulter (Gary’s father, Wade aka G-Daawg). A talent sadly extinguished a few months after filming completed.

Saying that Joe - as IMDb does – is about teenage boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) finding an unconventional role model in ex-con, Joe (Nicolas Cage) is perhaps slightly misleading. It’s more about a man trying to suppress his past self, although his past life proves purposefully provocative, while trying to prevent the young boy Gary turning into a replica of himself. Its narrative isn’t strict but it is escalating, all the while maintaining itself as a character piece – finding a star in villainous Gary Poulter as Wade. Through a bizarre job of poisoning trees to make room for strong pines, means following Cage and co. through a beautifully bleak forest, shot with much love by Tim Orr. Joe leads to all the places that a backwater, stale town filled with violence and alcoholism would, but the locations only help speak of the characters’ moral sensibilities, their problems, troubles and prepare us for their choices later on in the film.

In other hands, it would be easy for the director to take a more cynical outlook by shooting it in extra-bleak mode with a side of depression. Green manages to find levity without softening the impact of the more serious or sinister moments. There’s a brevity to the characters – with an exception with one who repeats his past like a Purple Heart instead of a weakening battle scar. Much is said with framings going from cluttered to bare. Its fractured editing style leads to some poetic moments through creative ingenuity – like the scene of the burnt down house in Prince Avalanche, a balance of collaboration (suggested by the editor) and auteurism (realising it’s a perfect fit for his sometimes ethereal style).

Performances are universally fantastic. Nicolas Cage plays it in a more harmonious way, distancing himself from the exaggerated performances that made him an internet meme. Here, he is quiet, contemplative, morally grey until he isn’t. His moments of losing it are never excessive. Completely earned and, again, understated. Early on, you feel reminiscent of Jeff Nichols‘s Mud when you hear the premise but this is a different beast – a vicious beast with violent undertones throughout. Though Ellis was a characterisation of childhood innocence and wonderment, Gary is one of a far more fractured home that uses violence to solve its problems, yet is committed to leaving it behind to never become like his father. Wade, as said before, is magnificently played by Gary Poulter who the audience will hate but that’s a testament to the late-actor’s work. The rest of the supporting cast are all universally great. They make this town seems almost like a dystopia – void of intelligence but filled to the brim in problems.

If perhaps you wondered where the indie director went, looking for something a little more serious or poetic than Your Highness, then this is the Green you will love. Joe is filled with his indie sensibilities, its meandering plot, twisted characters and non-professional actors putting in better than most performances. The only downfall of Joe is that moments of it are masterful but with a few inconsistent scenes and on-the-nose moments not fitting of its style or tone, it falls short of being a masterpiece. It is still a great film, really up there for the year. It has a fitting mood throughout, its subtlety may increase on rewatches. It is unfortunate that a few scenes weaken a film close to immortality in the annals of film history as a must-see masterpiece. It is still an important film to watch to feel the magic of its best moments.