★★★★ / ★★★★
Every once in a while a movie comes along and manages to hit all the right notes without ever hitting a wrong one. One waits for the film to stumble somehow—whether it be a performer stepping outside of his character for less than a second or a shot that lingers for a beat too long—but it never does. David Gordon Green’s “Joe” is that kind of film.
Based on the novel by Larry Brown, the premise sounds like a cliché: a teenager who is abused at home finds a role model in an ex-con. But the keen screenplay by Gary Hawkins eradicates the expected trappings by focusing on the specificities of the characters. Because we are emotionally invested in who they are, what they have to say, and what they will do next, we are left unguarded when it comes to just about every turn of event. It is a rural drama with a powerful gravitational force and once one is caught up in it, the claws of suspense is deeply embedded in our spines.
It is unflinching in its violence. We see a grown man punching a kid in the face, a skull being struck repeatedly using a rusty tool until the head is concave, people being shot from afar and point-blank. Violence becomes another character in the picture. It makes the case that everyone is capable of thinking it and thereby executing it. At one point, the title character says, “I know what keeps me alive is restraint. It keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people.”
Nicolas Cage plays Joe with an intensity of a grenade moments from going off. Beneath that hardworking, seemingly calm exterior is a man capable of so much rage. Most interesting is that he is aware he is not a good person when he sees red. The picture spends a good amount of time during the first act showing how people work with their hands. It is like attempting to distract a shark from attacking. It is only a matter of time until the distraction is unable to mask the scent of blood. It has been years since I have seen Cage being so effective in a role. I respected his character’s restraint and yet I feared his inevitable meltdown.
Although not as dynamic as Cage, Tye Sheridan is more than capable of holding his own against the veteran performer. He is required to summon not just anger for Gary being abused by his father (Gary Poulter—a real-life homeless man who passed away shortly after the film has wrapped—delivering a performance, though I am not sure if that is right word, that I will remember for a long time) but also a sense of possibly being permanently wounded, emotionally and psychologically, for living in such a destructive household for so long. Sheridan and Poulter’s scenes are difficult to watch because of the abuse and yet they are also the highlights of the picture because we convince ourselves we will not flinch once the violence occurs. It is a challenge not to be caught off-guard every time.
The picture is beautifully and astutely shot, very raw in its depiction of destitution. For instance, in scenes that take place in Gary’s home, especially at night, notice that there is no electricity. The shelves are empty. There are junk on the floor. Each member of the family’s clothes appear unwashed. Look at their unkempt hair. Feel the fear in their eyes as the father enters the room. I was amazed that I was able to absorb these things despite near darkness. Lesser films would have had dim lights or something of that sort just so we would notice how dirty everything was. I was impressed by its courage to show things as they would look like in real life.
“Joe” is moving but never sentimental, tough but never gratuitous. There is a vulnerability here that many pictures of its type attempt to reach but never do. Though the subject matter is dark and uncompromising, I relished every single beautiful, scary, heartbreaking, hopeful moment in it.