There’s a quote about midway through David Gordon Green’s Joe that I believe is crucial to understanding the film’s thematic core. Forgive me if I’m paraphrasing but it goes something like ‘These men have no more frontiers’. The line is in reference to the men Joe works with and in many ways applies to the titular character himself. Joe is a man that knows he is stuck; he has no where to go because his surroundings can’t let him. Even though he thinks five steps ahead of the average man it is only delaying the inevitable. The conflict of the story however is not whether or not Joe lives but if he can save the future of a promising child, named Gary.
Joe is the kind of film that proves that a small story can be much more meaningful than a larger one. This kind of unsentimental character piece needs a small tight focus so all of the nuances of said characters shines through. Thankfully David Gordon Green understands this; his approach to directing the film is subtle and organic, allowing the actors to shine first and foremost. There are some understated flourishes and several instances of visual poetry but for the most part Green keeps things taut and unsentimental. He wants the audience to be immersed in the volatile world Gary and Joe inhabit.
And what a convincing world it is. Green’s depiction of Southern lower class Americana is unsentimental, austere and straightforward. The film doesn’t feel the need to overemphasize aspects of these characters live. Nothing is glamorized, nothing romanticized; the film aims for a hard hitting depiction of the character’s world which only serves to further highlight the core conflict. Green understands that the audience needs to understand how close Gary and his sister are to harm and in doing so has crafted a thoroughly realized community teeming with details and nuances.
But the real centerpiece of the film is it’s acting; three performances in particular stick out. Cage’s Joe, Sheridan’s Gary and Gary Poulter’s Wade. Cage’s depiction of Joe is not quite the subdued performance many critics made it out to be. Instead it is a silent colossus of a performance. One of Cage’s biggest strengths as an actor is the ability to convey a character’s thought process without saying a word. He makes a perfect fit for Joe; a man who is always moving, thinking, never given to slowing down. He is a frank straightforward man and Cage does the character justice. Equally excellent is Sheridan’s Gary. Coming off his sterling performance in Mud, Sheridan proves himself one of the most promising actors of the younger generation. He brings balances both the character’s more mature and intelligent feelings and ambitions with a raw, primal rage that surfaces in a truly explosive manner. Finally we have Gary Poulter, the dark horse of this movie. A non-actor Poulter was hired due to his similarity to the character he was portraying. And boy does he nail it. Seething with a kind of disheveled rage, imbued with a selfish nostalgic anger for a time he had a future; Wade is a truly terrifying character only made more terrifying by Poulter’s raw, thoroughly convincing performance. If Joe is symbolizes a man in societal stagnation, Wade is that stagnation taken to it’s logical, horrific end.
Joe is a gritty, hard movie about gritty hard people but it’s also intelligent, heartfelt and riveting from the first frame to the last. It solidifies the comeback for David Gordon Green as a unique presence in American cinema and hopefully is a sign that Cage will do more of these kinds of austere, gripping character pieces more often in the future.
9 out of 10 stars