Originally written for Flixchatter, this review is formatted differently than most of my work.
Often grim, Joe is well made and gripping, though, perhaps, not for the faint-hearted. In the film’s first scene, writers Larry Brown & Gary Hawkins and director David Gordon Green define Joe as a harsh drama. In it, fifteen-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) accosts his father, Wade (Gary Poulter), for being an abusive alcoholic. Gary’s soliloquy helps solidify the film’s identity, of course, as does Wade’s response, but Green’s camera angle is even more effective; it is an unchanging over-the-shoulder shot, one that shows us the back of Gary’s head and most of Wade’s face.
From this first image, we know that Gary is not in control, that he will have to fight for success. Joe promises to be about a child on the precipice, one whom the world ignores.
It delivers. When Gary meets Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage), an ex-convict with a good heart but uncontrolled anger, the former convinces the latter to hire him and his father for laborious work as corporate tree killers. In his excitement, Gary runs home to tell his family he’s found work, but neither his mother nor father reciprocate his elation. Worse, Wade refuses to help Gary get groceries in town, only finally agreeing to join his son after lengthy conversation. Upon enlisting his father’s aid, Gary sees a stranger, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and asks for a ride. But Willie does not help. And neither does Wade, no matter what Willie says or does to his son.
Gary is too young and uninformed for such a life, but only Joe and Connie (Adriene Mishler) care. And only Joe helps. Helps so much, in fact, that he becomes Gary’s role model and surrogate father, his own emotional issues notwithstanding. Brown, Hawkins and Green’splot, then, effectively adheres to theme: as Joe himself asks, more or less, how does society allow its children to be this disadvantaged? Why don’t people help them?
It is an upsetting question, made all the more so because Green immerses in it. When Joeshould be disturbing, the directoruses every filmmaking element to fuel the audience’s anxiety. Consider when Wade stalks a homeless man. We hear soft, beat-heavy music mixed with natural footstep sound editing, at the same time we see a wide-angle shot that frames both men. The shot is held so long, the walk so drawn out, that we dread the scene’s resolution. When Wade lights a cigarette, our dread turns to fear. It is only one example ofGreen’s directorial skill, but it is emblematic. Joe would not be half so effective without the director’s artistic touches.
A narrative that sufficiently develops most of its characters helps, as well. As do powerhouse performances from Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan and Gary Poulter. All three men are note-perfectly captivating. Ditto that for Joe’s occasional flights of humor, which lighten the mood just enough to make the film entertaining.
If still imperfect, mostly because Willie is poorly written. Why, really, does he hate Joe? Why he is so bent on revenge? Why does he freak out at Gary the first time they meet? Why, in other words, is he who he is? We can only begin to answer such questions, and none of our answers move beyond theories.
Despite this significant flaw, Joe accomplishes its objectives and merits a recommendation.