Our big year-in-review issue hits the street on Thursday, December 25. I know you can’t wait, and neither can I, so every weekday until then I’ll be writing about one of my favorite films to premiere in Chicago in 2014. Number seven on my list is David Gordon Green’s Joe.
Before Nicolas Cage became a punch line, he was an actor—a damn good one, in fact. Every once in a while, a real filmmaker like Werner Herzog gets hold of Cage and coaxes a tour de force performance out of him like the one he gave in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans; then it’s back to the schlock and the chronically distracted takes, delivered between cell phone calls to his tax attorney. Adapted from a novel by Larry Brown, poet laureate of the Mississippi backwoods, Joe gives Cage one of the best and noblest roles he’s ever had, as a solitary badass who wants to be a good man but continually falls prey to an explosive temper. The movie also represents a creative comeback for director David Gordon Green, returning to the sort of rural tragedy that brought him to prominence (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) before his embarrassing sojourn as a Hollywood hack babysitting James Franco (Your Highness) and Jonah Hill (The Sitter).
Joe is a working man, the sort who measures other men by their work ethic. He manages a little forestry crew of day laborers who tramp around woodlands spraying useless trees with poison so the landowners can plant more profitable trees in their place. One day a poor, open-faced 15-year-old named Gary (Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life) shows up looking for a job, and Joe gives him a chance to prove himself. “Joe’s been around a little bit,” one of the men explains to Gary. “He’s got some things up under his belt, man. So I advise you, when you do go to Joe, keep it real. Don’t lie to him about nothing. And one thing Joe is real particular about, man: don’t never look down at the ground, look him in the face. He likes to see a man’s eyes. One-on-one. That’s how Joe is.” Gary’s father is a vicious wastrel, his mother is crazy, and his younger sister hasn’t spoken in years (possibly, one infers, because of the father’s sexual abuse). Joe becomes a paternal figure to Gary, but a volatile one: someone hassling Joe at a bar might get a bottle broken across his face, and a cop pulling Joe over might end up looking down the barrel of his own gun.
When Green first arrived, his naturalistic tales were routinely compared with those of Terence Malick, yet Malick’s tone is ethereal whereas Green’s is consistently ominous. Joe unfolds in a world of predators, from the poisonous snake Joe snatches up and displays for his crew to the whorehouse dog that makes Joe his mortal enemy to the scarred drifter stalking Joe with a rifle after getting smacked around in a bar fight. The challenge of being a man—of being both tough and good—is Green’s primary concern, with Joe and Wade butting heads over Gary and the boy’s future very much in question. “If you worked for Joe, you’ll do just fine,” observes Gary’s new boss at the end of the movie, after the conflict between Joe and Wade has come to a violent end. Gary may not amount to much, but you can be pretty sure he’ll always know the satisfaction, and the redemption, of an honest day’s work.