“Fuck this day” snarls Joe. There is no grin of slapstick comedy (Pineapple Express), rather a grim façade permeating director David Gordon Green’s screen adaptation of Larry Brown’s 80s Mississippi set novel of redemption through revenge, Joe. Starring in the titular role is a chunkier, bearded incarnation of Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom. Now ripe and ready at fifty years of age, Cage can lend his face to character acting roles; away from the easy flirtation of his youth, via high octane action to fantasy of his more recent efforts. Perhaps it is a little unfair to use Joe’s description of his American Bulldog, “a dog that looks like a cow” for Cage’s performance, at least in terms of aesthetic. Nonetheless, it is a gritty film; the kind of grit that grinds through your soul and rankles for a couple of hours.
Ostensibly, Joe is a film of friendship, as twee as that may sound, centred upon the forty something with a penitentiary past, Joe and his downtrodden protégé of fifteen, Gary (Tye Sheridan of Mud). Gary, roaming the woods, finds work with Joe’s outfit: a dendrologist’s nightmare, poisoning unwanted trees. It is a relationship founded on that typical principle of American existence: respect. A reciprocal respect ensues as Joe sees his own childhood neatly bound in the pages of This is Your Life manifested in Gary’s desperate plight and indefatigable work ethic. Meanwhile, Gary addresses his elder as ‘sir’, with the reverential gaze only an adolescent boy, deprived of a father figure, gives Joe, a liquor dependent, truck-driving megalomaniac, with a penchant for public poundings, both in the pub and whore house. Joe and Gary’s interaction is developed smoothly as Joe’s wall of reluctance, his natural inclination to remain emotionally detached from his young employee, gradually erodes and his role as quasi-father blossoms. Even Joe’s vices represent a more dependable figure compared to Gary’s father. Wade (Gary Poulter) is a lamentable excuse for a man, a lowlife hobo, reminiscent of Dean Moriarty’s phantom homeless parent, roaming the streets of Denver in Kerouac’s novel On The Road. Only Wade is no absent father. He is a persistent scourge to Gary’s admirable endeavours to support his mother and sister. He abuses, murders and even human traffics his own daughter for thirty dollars. Credit to Green’s direction: a more deeply loathsome character, created so proficiently and effectively in so short a space would be hard to find. In his dismal deprivation Wade is the butt of the American dream.
Like a cigarette butt idly cast into the cauldron of an arid American plain in the white hot heat of summer, Gary’s two fathers, the genetic and adopted, are born to combust. The climax of the film is the resolution of these conflicting characters, though they share a reliance on alcohol and tobacco, (who does not in filmic portrayals of the American south?) Joe provides for Gary all of the qualities he lacks from Wade’s fatherly failings. The film serves as an exploration of emotional connection between a young and a middle aged man. Gordon Green’s sympathetic eye for the cracks and complexities of individual characters, makes Joe a far more compelling story of revenge, because of, not in spite of, the quieter, sober moments dedicated to the development of Larry Brown’s characters. For a film that deals in violence, it is not daubed on with an over-zealous relish, but allows the scenes to breathe between brutality (saying that whoever supplies the cosmetics for clumsy bullet removal from body part scenes, must be one of the most sought after people in Hollywood). The expansion of an in essence revenge thriller’s palette to include pathos and genuinely affecting moments delivered by Cage, promotes Joe beyond a blood fetish and into the realm of heart-wrenching melodrama.
Joe is a far superior summer thriller to its closest rival, Cold In July. Of the pair, Joe delivers all the emotional punch, whereas its rival just keeps on delivering the punches in a farcically deteriorating example of action over plot that results in a gore-besmirched explosion of a climax, devoid of Joe’s attractive moments of tenderness. The amp is rarely tuned to the max, instead a layered portrait of a time and place develops that shares more of its values in terms of detail and the self-conscious manufacture of a specific reality with 2014’s Academy Awards success, Dallas Buyers Club. The parallels between the story of McConaughey’s drug-addled HIV sufferer and Cage’s earthy bearded, man of the woods are not glaring at first. On closer inspection, both characters, rebooted, edgier versions of the actors, find camaraderie from unlikely sources, in Jared Leto transvestite form and a boy fifteen years of age. The production duties are more obviously symbiotic as the camera closely pursues the exploits of a single man through the vast landscapes and grotty dead end towns of the American south. Both Dallas Buyers Club and Joe are successful because of their respective realism, by means of the respect for the source material and the pursuit of the real America in the late 1980s and early 90s. No glorification; just an adherence to the truth. A rare and glorious apogee for two words uttered too little: respect and truth.