Brilliant Nicholas Cage proves he's no ordinary Joe
The Oscar-winner leaves his usual big budget fare behind for this bleak and gritty drama
Director David Gordon Green is probably best known to mainstream audiences for his stoner comedies Pineapple Express and the Northern Ireland-shot Your Highness. But the Arkansas native began his career as an indie filmmaker specialising in off-kilter relationship dramas (All the Real Girls, Undertow) and Joe represents a return to that milieu.
The 'Southern Gothic' picture is also a return to more serious acting for star Nicolas Cage, who eschews the family fare and action movies he has been churning out in recent years for a heavyweight, awards-baiting turn as Joe's title character. To be fair, Cage is never less than watchable, even in the naffest Z-flick, but here, he's truly magnificent, finally capitalising on the momentum afforded him by 1995's Oscar-winning role as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas.
Suicide and alcoholism also feature in Joe, as do prostitution, drug abuse, domestic violence, paedophilia and any number of other horrors. It's no laugh riot – and you may feel like taking a shower afterwards – but it's one of the most engrossing releases of the year.
Cage plays Joe Ransom, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, prostitute-using ex-jailbird, who somehow simultaneously manages to be something of a nice guy, certainly as far as the workers in his not-entirely-legit lumber gang – which he presides over with a benign hand – are concerned.
He's trying to put his chaotic past behind him, although it's not easy when the likes of Ronnie Gene Blevins's sleazy, scar-faced psychopath Willie-Russell – with whom Joe has a long-standing feud – and the petty-minded local police are trying to pull him back.
But when Joe meets 15-year-old Gary (Mud's Tye Sheridan), whose family background practically redefines the word 'grim', he spies one last shot at redemption.
Adapted from the 1992 novel by Larry Brown, Joe's weighty script is a gift for Cage, who brings the lines to life without resorting too much on his usual tics.
But as good as Cage is, he's not the best thing about Joe. That considerable honour goes to Gary Poulter, who plays Gary's violent, booze-sodden father Wade, aka 'G-Daawg'. Don't let the character's impromptu breakdancing moves (one of the real-life Poulter's party tricks, evidently) fool you; a more chilling representation of evil has rarely been seen on screen. What makes Poulter's performance even more remarkable is that the man is an actual homeless alcoholic who has barely acted before. And sadly, he never will again, as Poulter died shortly after shooting wrapped. Somehow, it's horribly apt for a film like Joe.
Like some sort of crazed midpoint between Stand by Me and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Joe will make you smile, cry, laugh, retch and recoil, often all within the same scene. It may not make as much money as any of Cage's blockbusters or Green's gross-out efforts, but people will still be talking about it long after those films are forgotten.