While watching “Joe,” I realized that my generation is somewhat naïve to the skills of Nicolas Cage. Sure, we probably caught him in the overly dramatic and Disney-fied “National Treasure” series or have seen “Gone in Sixty Seconds” run on TBS during the weekend, but neither of those really dazzled from an acting standpoint. That’s why the complex, gruffness Cage displayed in “Joe” was both surprising and eye-opening for those who were unaware of his Oscar-winning potential, which has not occurred since 1996 when he clinched Best Actor in a Leading Role for “Leaving Las Vegas.”
In “Joe” Cage plays Joe Ransom, a semi-reclusive Southerner who spends his days drinking, smoking and illegally poisoning trees so that they can be cut down. His harsh exterior – complete with tattoos, a gristly beard and ferocious bulldog companion – all indicate that Ransom is a man not to be messed with. The tough guy persona crumbles once Ransom encounters the spry teenager, Gary (Tye Sheridan), who begs to join his tree-poisoning crew for a day’s wage.
As the film develops, Ransom forms a fatherly bond with his newest employee and quickly becomes concerned with the abuse that Gary’s drunken dad, Wade (Gary Poulter), elicits constantly upon his hard-working son. At this point in “Joe” it’s quite clear where the film is headed – Ransom does in fact have a heart, he’s invested in the well-being of Gary and we know that he doesn’t shy away from violence. A showdown between the two fatherly figures seems inevitable by the middle of the movie, but the predictability does not take away from the complexities of the film.
Director David Gordon Green seamlessly weaves dramatic character relations with authentic elements of cinematography. Thanks to the performance of Cage supported by the equally talented cast, “Joe” captures the socio-economic spectrum that dictates the story. Along with the believable Southern drawls and mannerisms, “Joe” is reinforced with spot-on elements of mis-en-scene. Cinematographer Tim Orr ensures that “Joe” is firmly planted in the Deep South – from the shots throughout the small town to those of Ransom relaxing on his couch, covered with a pink bed sheet while sipping on a whiskey and Coke and watching the local weather report.
While Cage is certainly going to receive praise for his work in the leading role, what is even more remarkable is the talent that comes from the mainly non-professional actors. Green was able to extract incredible performances from Poulter and other untrained individuals that give “Joe” an air of authenticity. One of the most jolting and memorable characters was the evil, alcoholic father played by Poulter. Prior to his role in “Joe,” Poulter was himself a homeless man, but managed to deliver an award-worthy performance regardless of his lack of professional training. Unfortunately, Poulter passed away soon after production of “Joe” ended, but his legacy will live through his stunning performance in the film.
Between the high-degree of acting, directing and cinematography “Joe” is a film certainly worth seeing. Audiences can appreciate the talented cast led by the incredible performances of both Cage and Poulter, which anchor the somewhat bleak, but ultimately redemptive story.