Source: Ryan Green, Courtesy Roadside Attractions
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan
On general release in the UK from 25 July 2014
The most obvious sign that ‘Joe’ is adapted from a well-written novel is the slow, meticulous exploration of the change in its protagonist
Joe brings to the screen a remarkable novel by the late Mississippi firefighter-turned-novelist Larry Brown – someone whose work is less read in the UK than it deserves. The film boasts a nuanced performance by Nicolas Cage and an even better one by Tye Sheridan, the young actor who shone in Jeff Nichols’ Mud last year. It tells the story of Joe Ransom (Cage), a 48-year-old, hard-drinking, sheriff-baiting redneck who, having served 29 months in the local penitentiary for assault, runs a deforestation crew. After giving a job to Gary (Sheridan), a 15-year-old from a family who are squatting in a derelict house, Joe is drawn gradually into the boy’s intense, violent struggle with his dissolute father.
The story has its melodramatic side and its setting is Gothic. Given how many pitfalls attend those genres, it was wise of director David Gordon Green to ground his rendering in a detailed evocation of context; in fact, the first 15 minutes of the film are almost all context. Joe is set in the most deprived part of the South, where people eat out of rubbish bins, drink themselves into oblivion and beat each other raw in the privacy of their corrugated iron shacks. Every interior is claustrophobic with the dreck and drainage of the inordinately poor, filmed in semi-darkness.
I approached the film wondering whether Cage was up to the job; the shrieking, bug-eyed hyperactivity for which he is famous predisposes him to the ambition of always playing likeable characters. What’s more, some might think him too manicured, too unblemished and too damn prissy to play blue-collar trailer trash. None of those apprehensions proves justified: his performance is a heroic one.
Cage dives into his portrayal of Joe with no trace of self-regard, undeterred by Gary Hawkins’ screenplay, which forces him into situations unlikely to endear him to the audience. We see him flaying a deer carcass for a friend (“Honey, you use that knife just like an artist’s brush!” she tells him); receiving a blow job at the local whorehouse; and urging his dog to kill another for sport (surely the worst thing anyone can do on film short of being outed as a serial killer). “I don’t know who I am,” Joe says at one point, as if in danger of losing himself for ever in the self-befouling fug of booze, sex and violence.
Cage’s métier is the rough diamond, the good man trapped by a bad man’s karma – think of Terence McDonagh, the amoral detective in Werner Herzog’s brilliant Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009); Cameron Poe, the convicted army ranger in Con Air (1997); and the terminally inebriate Ben Sanderson in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995). In that respect, the role of Joe is custom-made for him; and from the moment we witness the studious fairness with which he manages his work crew, all of whom are black, his generosity of spirit is obvious. Cage is assisted by a fine supporting cast consisting largely of non-professional actors drawn from Austin, Texas, where the film was made.
A. J. Wilson McPhaul stands out as Earl, the local sheriff who attempts vainly to deter Joe from committing the misdemeanours with which he torments Earl’s hapless colleagues; McPhaul has not previously appeared on film but possesses tremendous screen presence. One of the things I liked most was the film’s refusal to pretend, like some films about the South, that black people are a marginal presence. Black actors throng Joe and do more to establish its veracity than almost any other element, reminding the audience of the history of violence that lurks in the background of any film about the Southern states.
The most obvious sign that Joe is adapted from a well-written novel is the slow, meticulous exploration of the change that takes place in its protagonist. At first Joe is reluctant to intervene when he sees the boy struck to the ground by his father. “I can’t get my hands dirty with every little thing,” Joe says as he backs away. Yet it is his destiny to recognise something in Gary that he can save. “When I watch that boy I see someone who’s nothing like me,” he admits, and from that point it is only a matter of time before he acknowledges his power to redeem Gary from the failures and regrets that have turned his own life into a dead end. But can he actually do it? If so, the only form it can take will be a kind of transcendence.
Sheridan has the burden of creating a character who, according to the novel, is so poor he does not know what a toothbrush is. He persuasively embodies his deprivation, although the film as a whole flinches when asked to plumb its depths: poverty is dirtier, messier and less well fed than what we see here. Although less than persuasive in that respect, Gary’s vulnerability is evoked not only by the repeated beatings he takes from his father Wade, aka G-Daawg (played by Gary Poulter), but also by his willingness to undergo any amount of suffering in order to protect his mother and sister. When Gary’s mother tells him, “You need to stay with your family, your family’s all you got”, she impresses on us the terrible knowledge that he has no choice but to remain with them, even if it means submitting to his father’s violence.
For the drama to work, G-Daawg has to be played at full tilt. In the novel he is a reptilian sociopath who sells one son for adoption and pimps out his own daughter. A chance meeting with an impoverished drunk turns him into a murderer for the few dollars in the man’s pocket. “A person don’t know from one day to the next which is gonna be their last,” G-Daawg says, just before he slaughters the drunk. Poulter makes us believe in his opportunistic malice but is less effective, for reasons of physical build, at incarnating his dark, subdural menace. All the same, Poulter spars brilliantly in his few scenes with Cage, providing the necessary resistance to Joe’s growing sense that he must prevent G-Daawg from destroying those who depend on him.
I’ve laid emphasis on its darker aspects because Joe works only by persuading us that its characters have no option but to act as they do. Its central narrative conceit is that its anti-hero is too wrapped up in self-destructive behaviour to play the part of a good Samaritan until forced by necessity to break the patterns of a lifetime. That unforgiving argument is articulated through its various performances, especially those of Cage and Sheridan, from whose shared hell there emerges one man’s irrepressible desire to save the other. It is a very old story, perhaps the oldest of all, and the crueller the sacrifice, the more it compels us.
Joe is a labour of love and, in spite of its flaws, a compelling and memorable adaptation of Brown’s novel. It is soaked in a distinctively Southern bleakness relieved only by the meting out of a primitive justice of a kind found also in the novels of Flannery O’Connor, a writer whose sense of her milieu is more florid than Brown’s. It is giving nothing away to say that, for all its sullen grace, Joe is ultimately not a depressing film, not least because of its detailed evocation of the tormented world from which it comes. None of this is likely to attract audiences in the US, despite the film’s favourable reception among critics, but it may draw those in Europe who are less addicted to the idea of cinema as fantasy.