Joe is about the title character, an ex-con who is the unlikeliest of role models, meeting a 15-year-old boy and is faced with the choice of redemption or ruin. The film flows through Joe and his friendship with Gary rather than jumping from plot point to plot point. Allowing its characters to guide the material through their words holding strongly to their principals that are challenged. Never does it sidetrack into anything other than what it is rooted in. Characterization is slow, but builds up over time learning about Joe and Gary through each other interaction. Both characters show the other flaws as well as compliment one another strong suit. Showing restraint in succumbing to violence as an easy resort, but show their kind hearts to do better. On other hand, the environment around them brings out the worst in them as both attempt to restraint from being violent in situations that makes it desirable. Characters are presented with real issues and their handling on the matter stays true to their nature. Sadly it plays familiar story beats ending with an all too familiar message we've seen before that the past will always catch up with you. Another rather small issue would be the peripheral characters that are only around to stir conflict with only one having having a petty fleshed out motivation. Wade (Gary father) being a peripheral as his characterization is little more than abusing his family and killing for a drink. It's familiarity leaves little surprises, but its engaging central protagonists makes it worth experiencing.
Nicolas Cage stars as Joe and disappears into the role. Joe states several times how important it is for him to restrain himself, that personal restraint is the only thing keeping him alive. Same goes with Cage performance. Nearly every opportunity he might have had to go big with this part, he subdued himself, plays it subtle, keeps it realistic, and exercises the same muscles of restraint in terms of his acting that the character himself must exercise against his violent impulses. Relaying the insecurity and indecision behind Joe's tough exterior while still remaining an imposing presence. Tye Sheridan character is written pure and perfect, but Sheridan emphasizes his boyishness and trepidation, finding rough edges in a character that could have easily descended into martyrdom. Giving his character allot more depth than the writing provides. Both Tye Sheridan and Nicolas Cage excel in their share scenes together playing off each other flawlessly. Gary Poulter characterization is wholly one sided in bearing entirely negative traits, however, he's as pitiful as he is monstrous. Showing an odd tenderness given from his loose appearance to bearing the emotions of man who's fed up with his broken life. David Gordon Green has a gift for balancing the abstract with the mundane. He isn't afraid of subtle visual flourishes: a bulldog's mouth dripping with another dog's blood; a hog, hanged vertically, being stripped of meat; the kitchen of a brothel, its windows boarded up, with everything aglow in red. Showing the ugliness of a rural America that correlate with its characters; the ugly outside that are just as beat up as the people who live their and the small changes in environments that go along with it characters mood.
Joe is a slow film that much like it central relationship is supported by the strong chemistry between Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. Both the story and performances aren't anything new for anyone involve, but rather serve to compliment each other strengths which in the ends makes a great character driven film.
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
Set in a sort of backward town, the story revolves around an ex-con, Joe (Nicolas Cage), who suddenly finds himself in a deep friendship with a disadvantaged youth, Tye Sheridan. As a supervisor on an illegal tree-killing operation (clearing the way for the lumber industry), Joe meets the precocious, eager boy after successfully pleading for a job with Joe. As the film unfolds, we see more of Tye's tragic home life, as well as the inner demons of Joe. This sets the stage for a great character study, as well as a very successfully executed atmospheric piece. The film's strong writing and resistance toward clichés or easy answers speak to the maturity level of its production, headlined by the talented director David Gordon Green (Shotgun Stories). The film doesn't pander to the audience nor flinch away from the desperation prevalent in these characters lives, rather it does its speaking through its characterizations.
By far, the most unique aspect of Joe are the performances. Director Green made the bold decision to cast both professional, up and coming, and non-professional actors. What this creates is a tapestry of realism, we are enveloped with the naturalistic performances, the vivid explosions of emotion, the raw torment of the characters, and the general heft of the film. What was most impressive was the portrayal by Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless substance abuser who gives the strongest performance of the film.
If Joe has flaws, it because the film's so wildly unpredictable at times, that it gives the impression of being unfocused. The tone can be a bit jarring, and we're never really sure where it's going. In the end, however, this ends up being more of an assist than a detriment to the film.
It is the skilled directing which will make you to follow and support an ex-con, who is the unlikeliest of role models, when he meets a 15-year-old boy and is faced with the choice of redemption or ruin. Outstanding acting was perfectly matched with the saturated atmosphere of the lost soul lives. The film circulated into the mainstream news when the film's actor Gary Poulter was found dead in a shallow body of water in September 2013 before the film was ever released. The demanding role of the alcoholic father in the film, was perfect for Poulter, because he was a real-life homeless man, who suffered from alcoholism and was already deeply ill. He wasn't a professional actor, and his only other acting credit was a cameo appearance in the sitcom Thirtysomething. Director Greem took the risk to work with Poulter, and it wasn't easy because of his lack of sobriety, however, Green stayed committed to allowing him to be in the film.
A film which is not for everybody, but for those who recognize good cinematographic art with style and flare!
Looking back at Green's movie list, many of them involve a friendship no matter how odd or deformed they may seem. His last two are his best. There's a great portrayal here of a hard life in the South. It's none descriptive on location, but you get the feeling you work or you suffer. Sometimes the bare minimum is enough.
While this film seems critically above average, and I'll agree, it's nothing that will win Cage an award, but it's nice to see in a role that fit only for him. It's really the first since 2010 he's been so compelling on the silver screen. Flashes like this show why he's one of the better actors of our time.