Director: David Gordon Green
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
4 (out of 5) Globes
It’s not that Nicolas Cage hasn’t been entertaining. The last several years have seen the actor — an actual Oscar winner, one must remember — forced by finances to take any trashy role that came his way. Some of these have been for good: Cage is, by nature, a ham. He doesn’t, by his own admission, believe in a top to go over; he’s always pushing past the limitations of actorly boundaries and taste. Watching him even in “Drive Angry” or “The Wicker Man” can be as thrilling, in parts, as watching him in “Leaving Las Vegas” — or 1989’s “Vampire’s Kiss,” which is essentially a best-of-Nic-Cage YouTube clip that runs an hour and a half.
Still, Cage is also a real actor, capable of nuance, introspection and other qualities generally associated with “fine acting.” “Joe,” the latest from David Gordon Green, is his most understated work in ages. He plays a Texas ex-con who runs a ramshackle business poisoning trees. Into his midst comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager looking for work. His father is a professional drunk who beats him and steals his winnings. Gary — much like Sheridan did in “Mud” — is looking for a new father figure, and he may have found it in Joe.
But Joe isn’t much of a father figure, and Cage doesn’t play him that way. A hard-livin’ crank — at one point giggling on the phone with an employee over his drunken work-night out — he lets his hair-trigger temper lead him to bouts of self-destruction. He resists his inevitable role as savior to a boy looking for it, as he’s too busy getting tanked, tending to assassination attempts and flipping out on cops who pull him over for a breathalyzer. Cage balances moments of grace with classic Nic Cage freak outs. His character is driven more by impulse, so when he gets it in his craw to finally do something about the annoying guard dog at the brothel he frequents, the film follows him on a darkly comic digression.
In a sense, what Green is doing with Cage isn’t that different from what Werner Herzog did with him in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans”: He’s watching him. Cage is a loose cannon, and the camera observes him, just as it does the other, clear non-professionals Green rounded up for authentic, weirdly non-exploitive local color. Chief among these is Gary Poulter, a homeless street musician Green found in Austin. Poulter plays Gary’s monstrous father, and it’s an electric, unpredictable performance. The opening shot hangs on him as Gary, his back turned, launches into a righteously angry monologue about what a deadbeat he is, all while Wade/Poulter silently takes it, puffing on a cigarette. Finally Wade turns a dead-eyed stare at him that seems to last an eternity, before firing a full-body smack at his head. Poulter’s entire performance is like that: unpredictable, terrifying, pathetic. In real life, he drowned, unaware of the accolades on his way.
Green gets a lot out of training his cinemascope frames on real people as they comfortably chat and exist. His film doesn’t even seem to be in a hurry to get anywhere, least of all towards the emotional, budding friendship between Joe and Gary. “Joe” and last year’s “Prince Avalanche” have been called a return to Green’s roots, seeing as he unexpectedly took a massive foray into stoner comedies (“Pineapple Express,” “Your Highness” and “The Sitter”). Not only were these at least semi-worthwhile films, better than some of his earlier, serious “indie” work — it was also a necessary detour. Green returns to “serious” work a little funnier and more open, having shed nearly all of his Terrence Malick wannabe skin. Bits of Malick remain — Sheridan is a “The Tree of Life” alum, after all — but it’s fused with what’s blossomed into a unique and exciting sensibility, one that really knows how to get down with the down and out, and without a hint of condescension. That’s a true feat.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge