Before entering the cinema to watch Joe, those hired (or volunteering their free time) to write a review of the film will more likely than not already have an idea on how to start the piece – an easy way in if the film is indeed the success that the festival reports have promised. Such an easy way in is constituted as beginning the article by noting the strange cases of both its director, David Gordon Green, and star, Nicholas Cage, figures which have made certain career choices that the sensible, knowing critic would never make. While it is understandable that the film as art critic would be depressed to hear of Gordon Green’s foray into the disreputable mainstream with his stoner comedies Pineapple Express (2008) and Your Highness (2011) following the success of his arthouse modern classics George Washington (2000) and All the Real Girls (2003), the case of Nicholas Cage is even more dismal. Often choosing to star in the most critically despised films of the year, Cage is the polar opposite of the fussy Daniel Day Lewis – where the latter mulls over the roles he is offered, the former seems to say ‘Yes!’ right away. However, we can see that Cage has starred in many critical favourites over the years, from Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983) to the Coen brother’s Raising Arizona (1987), Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) right the way through to his Oscar winning role in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and my personal favourite, Cage’s appearance as twins Charlie and Donald Kauffman in Kauffman/Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). After watching Joe, the critic who has chosen to set up his or her review in the way that I have noted earlier can relax, satisfied that he/she has made the right choice, as the film, which is based on Larry Brown’s book, is indeed both a return to ‘form’ for Gordon Green and a positive addition to the Cage oeuvre.
In recent years there has been a number of American independent films which have took as their setting an impoverished, rural America. Far from the bright colours and material plenty of the big cities, these films have offered an attack on the capitalist propaganda emerging from Hollywood, criticising the much criticised notion that America is the land of opportunity, wealth and equality. While such critiques in the past have often set themselves in inner city slums, the current interest in rural spaces has arguably formed a new movement of films often aligned by aesthetic approach, story and setting. Exactly which films constitute this movement is up for debate and I will merely propose the most obvious: Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008), Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012), Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) and Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012). Joe functions as a welcome addition to this movement through its depiction of the squalor of the contemporary South, its interest in realism in addition to the success of its acting, direction and other elements.
Gordon Green’s film opens with adolescent Gary (Tye Sheridan) being attacked by his perpetually drunk, psychopathic father Wade, the same man who over the course of the film goes to great lengths to hinder the boy’s development, bestowing beatings and robbing his earnings so often that the most obvious enemy of the film, the US political system, is superseded by the malicious authority of this Deep South patriarch. In order to escape the brutality of his home life, Gary approaches Joe Ranson (Nicholas Cage) looking for a job. Joe is head of a business that use ‘juice hatchets’ to poison weak trees for removal by a larger company. Throughout the film, this man-made decomposition of nature is paralleled with both the dilapidated setting of the South and Gordon Green’s aesthetic choices. As nearly all the action is set in houses and shops that are disintegrating and the film’s use of colour is confined to that of autumnal decay, Joe offers an image of America rotting from within, where the growth and rejuvenation of nature and civilisation are hopeless prospects.
By granting Gary a job, an unlikely friendship starts to emerge between him and Joe, a brief rapport however broken by the arrival of his father. Being Joe’s sole white employees, the initial consternation of their fellow workers is exacerbated by Wade’s impudence and laziness, leading both to be given the sack. With Gary and Wade briefly out of the picture, a parallel narrative involving Joe now takes precedence. Joe is revealed to have a history of violence with one character, Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), returning to seek revenge with his shotgun for a bar bust-up. Willie-Russell reappears often throughout the film as figure that shares the malevolence of Wade, ultimately teaming up with him to sell Gary’s sister for sixty dollars. While the film opens as a minimalist investigation of poverty and violence, Joe quickly transforms into a fast-paced, tense thriller, offering car chases, dealings with police and prison and a climatic shoot-out. Amongst all of this, Gary and Joe’s friendship grows and is a joy to watch unfold: Joe quickly moves to reinstate Gary, gives him his truck and protects him from his father. The film ends with a moment of obvious symbolism. With the eradication of his father, Gary gets a job as a planter of pine trees on what appears to be the land formerly corroded by Joe’s business. While this may not be the complete rejuvenation of the contemporary South, Gordon Green offers us an element of hope in this dismal environment.
By shooting in the documentary mode, using jump cuts and avoiding narrative excess, Joe fundamentally aims for a traditional filmic realism, a realism it achieves both through its aesthetics and the authenticity of its performances, dialogue and action. While the film offers an illusion of realism through these practices, there is no way of knowing from our vantage point in the cinema whether this is a truthful portrait of the American South or if the film functions as exaggeration or deception. However, as the aforementioned volume of films that are shot in similar environments and are imbued with similar themes testify, it appears that rural America is undergoing a disintegration which the cinema is revealing. If these claims are in fact situated in reality, then we can view Joe and its contemporaries as working to inspire social change in an environment which needs as much political and intellectual support as possible.