Recently I wrote about David Gordon Green's Snow Angels, a film that just really bugged me because it tried to progress beyond his previous films in ways that just didn't work, while also skipping out completely on one of his strongest points: men standing around talking, thinking, joking-pretty much doing nothing for the sake of it. It was a definitive trait in nearly all his movies prior to this one, and he managed to make it work better than just about anyone. Green is also so comfortable in that warm, southern backwoods setting that that move to the snowy north (with clear echoes of Fargo, A Simple Plan, Affliction) just didn't quite feel right (perhaps because characters couldn't be comfortable just standing around in the cold chitchatting, so they didn't). I'm all for the progression of a filmmaker, but sometimes when it's a geographical one they're best just staying where they came from. That's especially true for Green, who has a rare gift of working on southern rural land without falling into the trap of contriving authenticity-he just plain gets it.
Green just never really felt at home with Snow Angels, which is even more apparent when you see how easily he settled back in the south with Prince Avalanche after his five year venture into raunchy studio comedies. Much of Green's comedy style consisted of male banter, and that clearly found its way into the often hilarious Avalanche. But by the end of that film, Green was back to being serious, which is good because it seemed to prepare him for the utterly dramatic, vicious southern goth thriller Joe.
While it's certainly a welcome return to Green's Undertow days, it also provides Nicholas Cage a starring role that doesn't just consist of him going through the motions and pretending to be an action hero. While the title character isn't someone that makes you immediately think of Cage (in the way, say, McConaughey was born for Mud, a film this actually has quite bit in common with), the actor doesn't just make it work, but shows us how good he can be when he really cares about a performance. What's tough about the character is that for most of the time, Joe is a quiet man with a dark past, doing whatever he can to keep his life straight. "I don't know what I am," he says, "but the one thing that keeps me alive is restraint." He drinks a lot, but not so much to get drunk but to stay sane. He treats his men well (he runs a crew of tree-poisoners for a lumber company) and when a young kid comes to him looking for work, he's ready to give him a chance. He seems like a pretty gentle man, but he's really just concealing a boiling, inner rage against all things bullshit. At times Cage is required to completely lose it, to become a lion of a man, and the way he balances these moments of terrifying energy with that restraint is part of what makes his performance great.
Also great is Tye Sheridan as Gary, the kid Joe hires. He's only fifteen, but he has the guts of someone twice that age. We get this from the opening scene of the film, in which he's sitting on a railroad track with his father Wade (Gary Poulter) and rebuking him for his reckless behavior. "You mess up a lot and leave it for me and mom and Dorothy to clean up," he says angrily. "You're just a selfish old drunk." Wade, his long scraggily white hair blowing in the wind and his weathered, thin face looking out in the distance aimlessly, looks somewhat sad and sympathetic until he turns and hits his son in the face, stumbles up a hill for a rendezvous with two unknown figures, and proceeds to get beaten up. From this opening scene Green's established clearly the identity and roles of father and son. Wade, probably like he's been doing his whole life, has screwed people over and can't even manage to defend himself, thus leaving Gary to take the reins and be the man of the house. More importantly, we see how Gary gets hit for standing up for what he believes in, while Wade gets hit for not believing in anything.
Wade's doing nothing to support his family, so when Gary comes to Joe looking for work, we know he's probably just trying to earn something to put some food on the table. He could use a father figure as well, and when Green cuts between shots of Joe and Gary carving sticks, that's sort of his cue that these two are meant to come together. It's a familiar story of a rugged man wit a troubled past befriending and mentoring a kid in need, thus it's never too hard to see where the movie's headed. But it's all handled with such confidence by Green and his actors that every contrivance in the story almost ends up being something the viewer embraces.
Part of this has to do with Wade, who ends up working with a scarred nutcase from Joe's past named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins, who looks like a Southern goth version of Peter Sarsgaard). It's a coincidence that's a little too obvious, but it also allows Green to play up even more Wade's utterly reprehensible nature. Wade is up there with the most odious of movie characters, a truly terrifying presence because sometimes he just seems like a stupid drunken goofball, but then he's also just a complete loser, someone whose humanity has been sucked dry. What may make Wade go down in history is that he's played not just by an unprofessional actor, but an actual Austin street bum. Green found Poulter one day and ended up casting him when countless great actors in Hollywood would easily have taken the role. It was a risky move, but it sort of represents what Green is all about as a filmmaker. He's always loved plot contrivances, but he also understands how to create a sense of regional authenticity, and the combination of the two is why he often feels like Faulkner's heir. His movies have symbolic weight while also existing in worlds that are truly individual and with the urgent sense of presence. As for Poulter, he doesn't just turn in a wonderful performance, but he makes Wade's senseless violent acts and utter trashiness seem completely palpable. And that's because in real life he had the same sort of mannerisms and hobo speech patterns. Poulter was basically just playing a version of himself only with an added sense of villainy. Too bad he died before the film came out, because he would have been one of the cooler success stories in recent times.
As a filmmaker, Green is more controlled than he's ever been. He uses lots of unobtrusive handhelds, and and rarely calls attention to his style the way he did effectively in Undertow and somewhat disastrously in Snow Angels (no freeze frames, saturated colors, or dramatic 70s-style zooms to be found here). His trademark voiceovers are also limited here to one scene (and it's a perfectly timed one), and his overall sense of restraint suggests a complete reliance on his actors and the story.
Now, to loop around to the beginning of this piece, in which I complained how Snow Angels didn't have any chitchat. Green makes up for that plenty here. Many of the film's best scenes just consist of the banter among Joe's work crew (also played by unprofessionals) when they're packed into Joe's truck, getting supplies at the grocery store, or loading up their poison tanks to kill trees. One of the great joys of Joe is how Green is able to put so much focus on both his movie stars and his cast of unknowns. They're certainly not interchangeable, but Green clearly loves them both.