"Hey Joe, where you going with that gun in your hand?" They already shamelessly forced in that reference with the credits at the end of "Nymphomaniac: Part II", but hey, it's not too much less cheap than Nicolas Cage's character being an ex-convict named Joe [u]Ransom[/u]. I don't know if they were actually going something with that here, but that would usually be a good sign that this is going to be yet another cheesily lame Nicolas Cage film, but believe it or not, the critics are all about this film. Oh, they're just excited because David Gordon Green is getting back into independent dramas, rather than commercial comedies, and quite frankly, after "Your Highness" and "The Sitter", I suppose we all are. Really, I don't what's become more popular: Green's idea of pairing up an unlikely and eccentric duo, or southern neo-gothics featuring a dark figure named Joe. Well, there's "Killer Joe" and now this film, and, like, a dozen buddy films by Green, so I don't suppose that question was too much more suspenseful than this film itself. No, the film is just fine, but it still has its share of shortcomings in intrigue, even in concept.
Ultimately not much more than a study on a boy from a new-to-town family finding a role model in an ex-con as he wanders about some small southern territory, this film's story concept is minimalist, having some conflict, but not much, and even lighter scale, due to its intimacy with characters who are also questionably drawn. Some Unlikable Roles, & Some Thin Roles] [The film juggles many perhaps memorable characters, but it puts only so much work into truly fleshing them out, at least beyond their types, crafting some thin roles, if not a few somewhat unlikable ones, most of which are simply supporting and therefore not as seriously distancing as they would have been as lead roles, but nonetheless detrimental to the engagement value of the film. To make matters worse, the characters a little familiar, not unlike the plot, as this is a garden-variety southern gothic drama, which more-or-less does nothing new, narratively or, for that matter, stylistically. Among the tropes hit in this rather artsy independent drama is a heavy emphasis on atmosphere, at times, that is, which only occasionally punctuates sobriety with a lyrical tone that not only sees a stylistic and tonal unevenness, - particularly when tensions suddenly grow great in a film that, for a long time, seems to lack a sense of consequence - but stiffens a sense of momentum with etherea. When the film gets carried away with its atmospherics, it gets a little dull, and when it settles down on atmosphere, it doesn't get too much less dry, never seeming to pick up all that much momentum in direction, largely because it never picks up that much momentum in writing, because, at just shy of two hours, this film is longer than it should be, given its minimalist story concept, which is interpreted into seriously draggy, if not repetitious plotting. I suppose "plodding" is a more fitting term, as this film simply drags, and drags, and drags, keeping you engaged just fine throughout its course through many an undeniable strength, yet still shaking your investment every step of the way with tonal and pacing issues as it meanders down a thin and formulaic narrative. Still, the final product endears as a subtle drama, complete with subtle stylistic highlights.
Working with very indie film equipment and sensibilities, Tim Orr is not particularly impressive with his cinematography, but he does what he can, and delivers plenty, with a certain gothic grit and sparsity that, upon falling over the right visuals, is about as haunting as the musical artistry applied to this drama. Coming off of working on David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche", whose score tied with that of "The Place Beyond the Pines" as the best of this past year, David Wingo loses much originality and effectiveness with the departure of post-rock band Explosions in the Sky, but his efforts with Jeff McIlwain here remain very strong, with a creative ambient atmosphere which is often blanding, and more often lovely, if not admittedly effective in the context of this ethereal gothic. Style stands fair, but in order for it to truly impress, it comes down to David Gordon Green's orchestration, which is over-atmospheric and overly lyrical, to the point of dulling things down, even though there's a certain coldness throughout this quiet drama, but has effective, immersive highlights to reflect inspiration in Green's storytelling. Although there's only so much bite to this minimalist and lyrical gothic, when tensions and resonance rise, Green does, in fact, impact, not as much as he could have, but enough to draw on some genuine thematic and dramatic depth from this affair. More direct of an influence on the molding of this narrative is Gary Hawkins' script, which is both thin and overdrawn, so much so that it might not even be as commendable as Green's still thoroughly flawed direction, although it is wittingly convincing in its portrayal of a small, gritty town, complete with characters who, for all their thin and unlikable aspects, are memorable, or are at least made so by convincing performances. It's mostly charisma which drives this cast, but it is impressive to find it across the board, even though what is most worth waiting for is the dramatic highlights, whether it be in the chilling unknown Gary Poulter - taken from the streets he tragically passed away in shortly after the completion of this film - as a deeply disturbed and selfish family man, or the young Tye Sheridan as a good lad seeking respect as he comes of age, or leading man Nicolas Cage, who plays his usual role as well as he in quite some time, initially delivering on charm and eventually turning to subtle and powerful dramatic layers which sell the titular Joe Ransom character's instability as an ex-con who can stray only so far from a dark path. Seeing as how this film is so intimate with its characters, the performances are key in keeping this film going, for although the final product fails to consistently engage, it gets by as a decent, if flawed southern neo-gothic.
Overall, a story concept of only so much momentum finds its bite further softened by thin spots in characterization, conventions, and dull atmospheric cold spells that are made all the more blanding by the dragging of the storytelling, whose shortcomings go challenged well enough by Tim Orr's often haunting cinematography, Jeff McIlwain's and David Wingo's consistently haunting score work, immersive highlights in thoughtful direction and convincing writing, and decent performances - the strongest of which being by Gary Poulter, Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage - to secure David Gordon Green's "Joe" as a fair and sometimes rather gripping drama, through all its shortcomings.
2.5/5 - Fair