SXSW 2014: Joe Movie Review

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Joe is a film that I’ve been curious about for about a year or so. The film was shot in and around central Texas by David Gordon Green, director most known for films like Pineapple Express but is also known for making small, edgier independent films as well. Gordon Green enlisted Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan as the film’s only real actors, as most of the film is composed of relative unknowns. I had heard good word of mouth about the film as it traveled through the film circuit last fall, and it makes one more stop before opening to the world, Austin, Texas. I just got back from the historic Paramount Theatre, and I have just seen a film that was one of my most anticipated for this festival. Let’s dive into the review.

Cage plays the titular character of Joe. He runs a business of cutting down trees in Texas (not sure where, mix of Bastrop and Lockhart). While on the job, Joe notices a young boy who wants work. This young boy’s name is Gary, and he and Joe begin a bit of a bond together, almost like father-son. Unfortunately, Gary’s got some troubles at home as his family and himself are constantly being abused by his father played by Gary Poulter. Joe, who has a violent and troubling past, contemplates how to take care of this situation, and what to do with young Gary.

Gordon Green shoots the film on a shoestring budget, which shows as the film shows off a very gritty and authentic southern feel to it all. Gordon Green uses a lot of handheld camera work and a mish-mash of some really stellar cinematography work by Tim Orr, a longtime collaborator of Gordon Green. The film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name by Larry Brown, and the film was written by Gary Hawkins, who made a documentary about Brown’s career some years ago. I never read the novel and I didn’t really know much about the story going into this film, but it’s a pretty basic story. It’s about a guy trying to find some redemption and hopefully that redemption lies in this boy. However, this boy also needs some redeeming of his own. The film never really twists or turns in any drastic way, and it’s a lot like a modern-day western in some respects. That small town angle to the film really benefits the film, with the cops knowing everybody and even the Sheriff looking out for Joe, who in some respects has a bit of a death wish.

This is the best performance Nicolas Cage has given in probably a decade. You still get a few of the quirks that Cage is known for (my friend sitting next to me was cracking up at some of his more subtle quirks) but it’s a very restrained performance, but it’s not as if Cage is phoning in his performance. The way he interacts with the locals in the film (from my knowledge these are actual locals from around Central Texas) feels really authentic, and either the writing is genius or the improvisation from these actors is spot on, as Cage and Sheridan share a scene or two that’s quite special. Speaking of which, Sheridan is also really terrific in the film, and it’s a great follow-up to his lead role in last years Mud. Granted, he doesn’t steal the show like he did from Mud, but it’s a fine performance from the young actor, and I look forward to seeing his work for some time now. But one of the most surprisingly performances of the film comes from Gary Poulter as Sheridan’s young father. This man had never acted before, and he was actually among the many homeless individuals in Austin. His performance is spot on with both Cage and Sheridan in the film, and you have such a hatred for this evil and abusive character. It’s some of the finest acting I’ve ever seen from an unknown, but unfortunately Mr. Poulter never saw his performance in the big screen. He was found dead on Lady Bird Lake here in town a few months after shooting had finished. Entertainment Weekly has a more detailed account of his story, and at the end of this review I will give you a link to it.

I had never seen any of Gordon Green’s work until this film. I was just mostly familiar with his work on Pineapple Express and other films, and when he was honored at the Texas Film Awards the other night, it went into great detail on his smaller independent work. While the film does have a dark sense of humor, and there were some genuinely funny moments from Cage and others in the film, it’s a fairly dark drama/thriller. The film was very well made, and I applaud Gordon Green for being able to make a dramatic piece of this caliber. And while the film doesn’t get to that kind of level that Mud had, Joe is still a very entertaining and well made Texas born thriller, which is something that really matters to folks like me. If you had to see the film for one reason, it’s for Nicolas Cage’s incredible performance that is so good, and granted its only March, it should be taken into consideration by the Academy for next year. If that’s not the case, Joe could end up being one of the most overlooked films of 2014. The film will open on April 11th in limited release, but since the film was shot in this great state, we may get dibs on that opening weekend.

Final Rating: 

A

Entertainment Weekly story on Gary Poulter: http://insidemovies.ew.com/2013/09/14/toronto-nicolas-cage-gary-poulter-joe/

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