“As expected with a Green film and his dedicated cinematographer Tim Orr, the look of Joe is rich in atmosphere and often grotesque.”

By the end of David Gordon Green’s latest film Joe, I sort of wished I had somebody like Joe Ransom on my side. Someone who started out a total stranger to me – an indescribable enigma that only knew hard work and admired commitment and dedication – who later grew to deeply care for the way I would turn out and made a wonderful attempt to help me get on the right track in a hopeless rural landscape.

Joe is not the ideal role model for fifteen-year-old Gary; an ex-convict who drinks, gambles, and smokes too much, who hires the kid to work as a lumberjack in the backwoods of the Mississippi alongside him and his crew. However, Joe’s more trustworthy, caring, and appreciative of Gary’s work ethic and company than Gary’s own father, Wade (Gary Poulter), an alcoholic who constantly abuses his son. Joe doesn’t really want to get involved in what isn’t his business. Yet we can see by the way he looks at Gary that he sees someone capable in his shoes. Joe goes on to say that Gary is sitting on the fence, perfectly perched on it, at any moment about to fall onto the bad side or the good side. Joe wants to be the wind in the right direction it seems.

Directed by
David Gordon Green
Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Release Date
11 April 2014
Steve’s Grade: A-

Joe is played by Nicolas Cage in a performance of true dramatic magnitude. Cage has understandably been known to take one silly performance after another and serve as something of a running joke or punchline to cinephiles in the present day. However, Cage exhibits some of the most affecting acting talent I have yet to see in him with Joe. Cage nails the subtle, sometimes poetic, and often telling facial expressions of his thickly-bearded character. Gary is played by Tye Sheridan, who, at the tender age of seventeen has played the underappreciated and undervalued teenage son in films such as Jeff Nichols’ tremendous “Mud” and Terrence Malick’s unforgettable “Tree of Life.” Sheridan has a rough-and-tumble look to him for such a young actor, which goes great with the rough-hewn look of Cage. Sheridan has been on a hot-streak in coming-of-age roles in recent years that I just fear he’ll be serenaded by money and fame with the production of young adult books-turned-film-adaptations that he’ll leave the life of the quiet, moody indie feature behind.

Together, both actors work well together, and the chemistry they create and the themes they conjure up are simply wonderful. Consider the scene where Gary is learning the ropes of poisoning and cutting down dead trees with Joe and his crew. Gary is given a huge backpack full of poison, a little hose to spray the trees with, and an axe so he can go to work. We then see Gary messing around with his coworkers, wowing them a bit with his skills, and having a good time while doing some hard manual labor. These scenes will likely remind anyone of their own experiences with working at a young age, and admire Gary’s desire to learn new things and, in turn, receive a paycheck to commemorate his work.

But Green doesn’t hesitate to get dark and dreary on us. He shows Wade as the contemptible father and man he is, stealing his son’s paycheck, beating him for his hard work, and even going as far as to disrespect Gary’s coworkers and even Joe himself. Poulter gives a wonderfully authentic performance here, who can go from cheery and goofy to hot-headed and violent in about five seconds. It’s a performance that needs to be ugly and revolting and it’s safe to say that Poulter nails it.

As expected with a Green film and his dedicated cinematographer Tim Orr, the look of Joe is rich in atmosphere and often grotesque, showing the murky side of backwoods areas. Films like this, however, give me a real appreciation for societal imperfections and seeing the real-life ugliness of these areas that are covered in green, brown, and black forestry, covered in mud, and simply broken and dilapidated in structure. There’s an unrefined beauty to these locations I’ve grown to admire and appreciate, watching films by the likes of Green, Harmony Korine, and Larry Clark. There are filmmakers who show the lavish and luxurious life, which is perfectly fine by me. But then there are filmmakers who have a desire to paint reality in ugly but brutally honest strokes, and Green and Orr know how to do that to superb effect.

After Green’s little diversion into mainstream comedy with The Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter to only middling effect, it has come clear to audiences, and to myself, that this is the Green we deserve to see. The Green who worked on mainstream comedies had little to offer other than overcompensating silliness and redundant sight-gags. The Green who works with a smaller budget, great character actors, intimate stories, and unique locations produces such wonderful pictures as George Washington, All the Real Girls, Prince Avalanche, and now Joe. Take your pick.

A little footnote about Joe to wrap everything up. Gary Poulter was a real-life homeless man, who suffered from alcoholism and was living off the streets of Austin, Texas for quite sometime. Poulter was hired a leap-of-faith by Green, who admired the naturalism and authenticity he’d bring to the film, despite his only acting credit being on the sitcom Thirtysomething and opposition from producers, who saw him as a liability and quite possibly irresponsible. Poulter died months before Joe was even released, and was found floating face down in a shallow body of water.

Review by Lead Film Critic, Steve Pulaski