Nicholas Cage has quite a bit in common with Jack Nicholson. What I mean is that they are idolized for being crazy onscreen. I always wanted Hollywood to make a buddy-action comedy starring Nicholas Cage and Jack Nicholson, because the potential for perfection would be high. But, let's get back to Nicholas Cage and his acting style. He loves being over-the-top, embraces it, maybe even caresses it. This type of acting style has forced people to either love him or hate him. As for me? It really depends on the material, sometimes Cage is great (The Rock, Con Air), other times he's dreadful (The Wicker Man jumps first to mind). I don't know if Cage is trying new things or if there was something in the script for "Joe" that woke him up creatively. Whatever it was, it really worked, and I can only hope we see more work like this from Cage in the future.
"Joe" is a brutal movie, a stone-cold movie. Something that is not the typical Cage fair. Heck, it isn't even the typical David Gordon Green fair (AKA the film's director). If you were to trim through David Gordon Green's filmography, you'd notice stuff like "Pineapple Express", "Your Highness" and "East Bound & Down." Watching "Joe," I would have never guessed that a guy whose done comedic stuff in the past was capable of creating something so cruel. There are never any guarantees in the business, which has left me very open-minded. Just when you think somebody can or cannot do something on-screen, it usually means the person is question can do the exact opposite.
"Joe" tells the story of an ex-con named Joe (Cage) who oversees a lumber company "tree poisoning" crew. One day, he hires 15-year-old Gary (Ty Sheridan) on the spot. Right away, Gary puts in really good work with the crew, almost as if he is a gifted natural. Gary asks Joe to hire his father, and that is when Joe learns a terrible truth. Gary and his family are homeless, and Gary's father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a abusive alcoholic. Despite this, Joe sees raw determination in Gary, and he takes him under his wing and mentors the boy. Its as if Joe is getting some sort of self-redemption from guiding this boy through his life and trying to teach him some things about it. Even as Joe sorts out life problems of his own, he never turns his back on the boy.
One thing I did appreciate about "Joe" is that it didn't follow the normal routine cliches. Usually, when an unlikely person tries to mentor somebody, it leads to a list of cliches so wide and so apparent that hurts to pad the list out. "Joe" reaches for a menacing finish, something more ambitious, dangerous and original than the typical movie of this caliber. However, the films secret weapon is the handling of Cage. It seems for the first time in a long time, Cage hasn't shattered the test tubes. This is some of the best acting to come from Cage, in any movie. Ever. This is some of the most calculated, patient, calibrated acting in his career and it is quite bracing. Sure, Cage's character has some big moments in the movie, but his normal "Crazy Cage" is well reserved and well used. You'll hardly believe its him when you see him.
Every actor in this movie is great. I don't know much about Ty Sheridan, but I can say that after this movie, he's a star in the making. I can't imagine a young actor getting something like "Joe" so early in their career. But everything Sheridan does is handled with care and with real insight. The person who really steals the show is Gary Poulter as Wade. He is a real-life boogeyman in this movie. He is a terrifying force of nature in this movie. But at the same time, he's a tortured soul who doesn't know how to heal, so he destroys everything around him. Poulter is quite horrifying in this movie, he's got a cold look that was addicting. I think also learning that Poulter was a real homeless person prior to being hired for the film and that he truly suffered from alcohol made the experience even more devastating. He sadly also mysteriously died before the film was released on its festival circuit last year. That is quite unfortunate, because it would have been interesting to see what he'd do next.
Despite the great performances and great story, I couldn't help but be put-off by the anti-climatic ending. I always disslike an anti-climatic ending and it rings true with "Joe," no matter what else they got right. Sure, I suppose it could be argued that a real situation like this would play out the same way. But almost everything in the movie leads to a big showdown at the end, and it seems as if Gordon Green slightly betrayed the audience with such a rushed and half-witted ending. I also have to point out that this movie leans very much on a dark crutch. I have never hated going down a darker road in the theater, but I want there to be a certain degree of hope involved in it. There is very little hope in "Joe," well...at least for most characters. Audiences should be warned by how sad a tale this truly is.
No matter what though, if you need a reason to see "Joe," see it to watch Cage throwdown. This is a performance so good that I wish he'd get an Oscar nomination for it. Everything else is quite enjoyable about it too.
FINAL GRADE: A-