Having seen Tye Sheridan in both Mud and Joe, Judge Michael Nazarewycz is suddenly craving coffee.
"I know what keeps me alive is restraint."
By the end of 2013 and throughout awards season, everyone was talking about "The McConaissance"—the resurgence into prominence by actor Matthew McConaughey. It's no surprise, really. The actor appeared in three heralded films: The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club (for which he won his Best Actor Oscar), and Mud. But because that last title was released early in the year, and because of McConaughey's awards streak, it's easy to forget that what helped make Mud so good was the performance of rising child actor Tye Sheridan. When I saw Mud in theaters last year, I made a mental note to keep an eye out for the kid's next release. And here I am.
Facts of the Case
Joe (Nicolas Cage, Leaving Las Vegas) is a pretty simple guy. The ex-con gets up early in the morning to give his crew a ride to work. They work giant tracts of land, clearing brush and poisoning weak trees so that a lumber company can clear them and grow strong trees. The workers do this because while weak, the existing trees are still alive, and only dead trees can be cleared. So they kill them. Then clear them.) After a day's work (paid weekly in cash), Joe gives his crew a ride back to town. He comes home, does the books, drinks a lot, and on occasion visits the local brothel. He has a few people in his life that he helps, but for the most part, Joe is a loner.
Until he meets Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager living a very bad home life. Neither of his parents provide for him or his sister, and his father(Gary Poulter) is a physically, verbally, and emotionally abusive alcoholic. In an effort to get food that isn't scrounged from a garbage dumpster, Gary turns to Joe for employment, who hires him and becomes both a mentor and a father figure. That doesn't make Gary's father too happy. Complicating matters: Joe's past is rearing its ugly head.
The easy move with Joe would be to draw comparisons to Mud, what with its rural setting, its mysterious title character, and Sheridan in the role of a young boy with no positive male influence in his life. Those comparisons are all accurate and fair, but while Mud is still a better film, Joe has more than enough going for it to earn its own praise.
Mud has more of a narrative structure. There is a goal, conflicts getting in the way of that goal, and actions taken to overcome those conflicts. By contrast, Joe is less an exercise in witnessing the unfolding of a plan and more an exercise in character study and interaction.
Joe has a routine. Joe meets and hires Gary. Joe's life changes for the better. And it's not that he becomes a better person, per se; he isn't born again and ready to change his ways. It's just that his relationship with Gary gives him more purpose than the repetitiveness of work/drink/sex ever could. He still works, drinks, and has sex with prostitutes, but there is another component to balance those things.
Gary has a routine. Gary meets and works for Joe. Gary's life changes for the better. And it's not that he becomes a better person, per se; he was already a good person to begin with. It's just that his relationship with Joe gives him hope that his future offers something more than scrounging for food for his sister or defending himself against his father. He understands that hard work and smart thinking will make the future better, even if "better" simply means owning a truck.
Wade has a routine. Wade learns that Gary works for Joe. Wade's life does not change for the better. In fact, throughout the course of the story, Wade lets a bone-chilling darkness wash over him. His alcoholism fuels an inconceivable anger, and learning his son is making money and not sharing it with him only only adds fire to that fuel.
We watch these life-paths traveled by Joe, Gary, and Wade. We see how they intersect. We see how the consequences of those intersections affect the subsequent course of those paths. It's a privilege to watch.
A film as character-driven as Joe rides heavily on the actors' performances. Cage defies his memes and delivers, digging deep into what he always had, masterfully finding Joe's soul, and wrestling with it for all to see.
As for Sheridan—the price of my admission—he is simply okay. His performance is a shell of what he did as Ellis in Mud, and it's not because of the material. It just isn't memorable.
To call Poulter a scene-stealer is to do a great injustice. For as evil as his character is (there are things he does that Spoiler Law prohibits me from divulging), you simply cannot take your eyes off him. He is one the most mesmerizing villains ever portrayed on film—evil incarnate in the guise of a hillbilly drunk, yet one who can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of Hollywood's baddest baddies. Adding to this mystique is the fact this is Poulter's sole onscreen appearance. Director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) plucked the man from an obscurity burdened by lifelong substance abuse, and only months after the film wrapped, Poulter was found dead in three feet of water, with theories suggesting his demons finally got the better of him. Like so many one-hit wonders, it's possible that Wade was the perfect role for Poulter, and he the actor for it. I regret we'll never know for sure if he could have gone on to even greater roles.
The film's ending (Spoiler Law in effect) is incredibly satisfying.
The 2.40:1/1080p HD imagery on Lionsgate's Joe (Blu-ray) is very good. This film has numerous dark and dimly-lit scenes and the clarity therein is excellent. The transfer serves well the cinematography of Tim Orr (also Pineapple Express), whose hazy daytime scenes show no significant defect. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track is just as good, capably balancing dialogue, soundtrack, and ambient noise (particularly heavy rain).
The disc arrives with a few extras, starting with a Commentary track that features director Green, composer David Wingo (The Sitter), and actor Brian D. Mays (in his first role). Following that are two featurettes. The first is The Making of Joe (11:15), which features Green, Cage, Sheridan, and Poulter discussing the story's origins and the film's characters. The other and far more interesting featurette is The Long Gravel Drive: The Origins of Joe (15:55). The bulk of this featurette is screenwriter Gary Hawkins (The Rough South of Larry Brown) analyzing the original novel (and its characters) as written by Larry Brown. There are also two Deleted Scenes that total about three minutes, although just one is truly deleted, while the other is simply extended. We round out the package with an UltraViolet digital copy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Joe's ending might be satisfying, the moments leading up to it are dreadfully cliche. Again, I must invoke Spoiler Law, but believe me when I say it's the weakest part of the entire film. Except maybe the epilogue. That thing is WAY to contrived and actually takes away from the satisfaction.
Do yourself a favor: Come for Tye Sheridan, but stay for Nic Cage and Gary Poulter.
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