“Tell me something. You like funny faces?”
Welcome back David Gordon Green. While it’s easy for me to say such a statement because I know his pedigree on paper, truth be told I’ve only ever seen one film of his before he dove into Hollywood comedies. It was his last before that period of his oeuvre began—Snow Angels—and it was a glorious drama with top-notch performances and weighty drama. I won’t lie and say I didn’t love Pineapple Express because it is a great flick. Your Highness and The Sitter are a complete other story, though. Admittedly, those two tainted my view of his heralded independent voice—one worthy of having its debut release on Criterion Collection. After watching Joe, however, I think it might finally be time to dive into that back catalog after all.
A brother to Jeff Nichols’ brilliant Mud from earlier this year, Green’s newest even has the same young actor supporting his titular lead. Tye Sheridan either has the greatest agent in the world or simply possesses the kind of ingrained encyclopedic knowledge and love for the art form that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson had at his age. His résumé may not contain a whole lot of diversity with its three country boys growing up with a little bit (or a lot) of abuse—Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life rounding out the trio—but he knows emotional stoicism and unwavering moral center in a way most adult actors don’t. He embodies the hardworking boy who could kick your butt image perfectly while also giving us a troubled soul in desperate need of our compassion and empathy.
Here more than the others, Tye’s Gary is caught in an impossible place. He knows what a bastard his father is (Gary Poulter‘s Wade) and that it’s up to him to care for his mother and sister, but when push comes to shove can’t bring himself to hurt the man he’s supposed to idolize. Even after proving his worth with local businessman Joe (Nicolas Cage), the desire to put his dad on track with his own spot on the job risks him losing all the credibility he just earned. Wade is never going to work an hour let alone a full day when he could troll the neighborhood for scraps and alcohol, but Gary can’t give up. Luckily for him, Joe begrudgingly (at first) provides the friend/father figure the boy needs as a way to seemingly right some wrong of his past.
And here is the brilliance of screenwriter Gary Hawkins‘ adaptation of Larry Brown‘s novel—we learn very little exposition about Joe or Gary. The film is a testament of the now that rewards our patience with small morsels of information adding dimensionality to the characters, not the unfolding events. Watching Cage joke with his workers before heading home for solitude or his carefully considered decision to not step in when Wade beats Gary and takes his pay speaks volumes no heartfelt sharing of emotions ever could. These men keep their thoughts close to their chests, acting only when there’s no room left. This is the breaking point of Gary unleashing his wrath on local nuisance Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) or Joe fearlessly taking on the police officers pulling him over like clockwork for drunk driving.
There is a similar rage brewing within both that overshadows the sympathetic souls underneath. It’s this kindred spirit that Green shows as some sort of psychological link with a few intriguingly obtuse moments cutting between both actors as though they sense each other from afar. Joe becomes the father Gary never had while he likewise gives the grizzled ex-con someone to care for. Joe tries to do so with girlfriend Connie (Adriene Mishler), but ultimately shuts down and heads back to Merle (Sue Rock) at the local brothel. He can mentor Gary, though, and let him into his life that obviously holds more than a few similarities to the boy’s. To Joe the act of giving him what he never received is a way to make up for the bad things he’s done.
It’s this kinship that grows as Willie’s thorn in their sides transforms into much more. Between his unyielding insolence and Wade’s increasingly abusive nature, Joe can’t help but find the tenuously calm façade he’s cultivated to stay out of jail disintegrating. His checked temper rises until Sheriff Earl (Aj Wilson McPhaul) has to step in and warn his friend he’s about out of warnings. Joe begins seeing red just as Gary gets fed up with his father’s violence towards him and sister Dorothy (Anna Niemtschk), the two converging together as a force for vengeful hope while Willie and Wade begin making deals of their own. Green creates a dark, rundown world of broken souls defeated by life where each stands at the brink of descending into hell with no means of return.
The burgeoning relationships may be cliché for this type of story, but each resonates thanks to the gritty portrayals forming them. Sheridan was born for this starkly harsh childhood and wise beyond his years demeanor while Cage reins in his large personality to craft a man at constant war with his temper. Less aloof than Matthew McConaughey‘s Mud, Joe stands at a distance from others for his own survival. It’s only meeting this desperate and fearless boy that shakes him awake in the hopes of saving Gary from the life he’s been forced to lead the past twenty or so years. Their authenticity inside this visually unflinching environment aside, though, it’s Poulter’s Wade who truly epitomizes this bleak aesthetic by effortlessly melding his own rough history with that of his character.
An untrained actor found on the streets by the casting director, Poulter brings a dopily deranged humor to this vicious and calculating creature sulking around the film’s heart. He is ultimately the man who brings Joe and Gary together as well as the one who rips them apart when the necessity for sacrifice trumps self-preservation in an emotionally heavy climax. He becomes a sort of vile apparition always on the move, living on the outskirts of this small backwoods society like a circling hawk feigning weakness while waiting to pounce. It’s a role that got Poulter clean and sober long enough to win a second in another movie. Sadly, it wasn’t enough to save him from his inevitable destruction, passing on before getting the chance to see his affecting debut in full.
courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival