What's so remarkable about David Gordon Green's Joe (his adaptation of the Larry Brown novel) is that it deals with so much--the deterioration of one father-son relationship and development of another, a youth's dogged attempt to build a better life, an ex-con's tortured attempt to deal with inner demons--and yet doesn't feel all that weighed down. It moves deliberately but not solemnly, in a manner that seems eerily in tune with its surroundings (Taylor, Bastrop, Lockhart--three of several small towns surrounding Austin, Texas).
The film begins with the camera lens trained on Wade (Gary Poulter), crouched in a shallow stream; on the screen's right edge Wade's son Gary (Tye Sheridan) is softly bitterly cussing out his dad, telling him how selfish and deluded he is, how he'll be beaten for what he's done (we don't know what, exactly). Wade cuffs Gary across the face (a swift vicious blow, like a cottonmouth strike), then climbs a nearby slope, the camera still following. Two men approach, words are exchanged, the two batter Wade to the ground.
It's a great opening shot: father and son's relationship summed up in a single scene around which their world is deftly sketched, full of incidental beauty and unexpected danger. We get a taste of Wade's violent temper, his hard-luck attitude (he stands impassive as the men challenge him, then manhandle him).
As for Joe (Nicolas Cage) we're given the portrait of a middle-aged man doing relatively well in life (he's supervisor for a work crew), is widely liked (he's popular with the local prostitutes, and has the local police chief's bemused sympathy), is appropriately softhearted with regard to strays (he puts Gary on his work crew). And yet Joe has rough edges: he's an ex-convict with a fearsome temper (he sics his dog on an equally vicious dog; in a barroom he slams a man's scarred face on the counter). He has this ongoing routine where he zooms past a known speed trap and the local officers with guns drawn try coax him out of his car. That latter is a memorable bit of business from Green: the tone veers wildly from rote slapstick ("C'mon Joe--" an officer pleads as if for the umpteenth time) to tinderbox tense ("How bout you put that gun away and we talk about this like grown men?").
Joe recalls Lito Lapid's Oscar in Mario O'Hara's violent musical melodrama Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, an--I kid you not--unholy cross between Prison on Fire and A Star is Born), where the ex-con protagonist seems more comfortable behind bars. I'd say part of Joe's tragedy is that he's too good a fighter; if he'd been beaten up more often in prison he'd probably have learned to hold his tongue--not an ideal role model for Gary, but they seem genuinely taken with each other.
Might add that Joe also reminds me of someone I happen to know very well, my father. Took time to recognize Joe was my dad, about when he makes his first visit to the local whorehouse--his easygoing way with women; his ability to inspire strong feelings of loyalty from others; his awareness of how this loyalty both weakens him (he counts on it no matter how abusive he gets) and weighs him down (too many people willing to follow him, often into trouble). All traits my father failed to pass onto me (for better or worse), yet still something of a shock to see portrayed--superbly, by Cage--on the big screen.
Then there's Gary's other father. Wade is played by Gary Poulter, a homeless former street entertainer (the slow-motion breakdance he does onscreen was part of his show) who died only months after the film was released, and he's amazing--charismatic and unpredictable both. People talk of how effortlessly Wade embodies evil (he physically abuses Gary, and it's unspoken but implied that he's also responsible for the trauma that silenced Gary's sister) but that's not what's so disturbing: it's his certainty that's unnerving, how comfortable he is in his own skin doing what he does (at one point stalking a fellow vagrant for a bottle of wine), the elaborate well-practiced monologues he spins out explaining his way of life ("I go out looking for work, looking for a way to support you and you do this to me?"). He doesn't feel like some character stepping out of the pages of Brown's novel, or the scriptwriter's imagination: he's complete and irreducible, playing himself on the big screen.
Wade's familiar too--I know people like him, know they can't be explained away by book or screenplay. They exist, sometimes live near you (sometimes with you, for years); you ignore or confront them at your peril.
Joe seems to know the peril. He visibly dislikes Wade, yet seems reluctant to deal with him--at one point he's witness to a small sample of Wade's cruelty, forces himself to look away; at another he faces Wade after learning the full extent of the man's malevolence (or anyway full extent of the man's malevolence at that time), and still finds himself unable to come to grips--a moment that shouldn't make sense but somehow does, to me at least: Joe can't bring himself to punish Wade because (I suspect) he recognizes Wade. He sees in Wade an older, less charming, more broken-down version of himself, and knows he can't render final judgment--it's too much like rendering final judgment on himself, too much like a foreshadowing of the final judgment on himself. Joe can't decide what to do with Wade; only Wade knows what to do with Wade.
The film is heavy with symbolism: Wade represents Evil; Gary, Innocence; Joe himself Redemption, or at least the impulse to reach for it (significantly his work crew's task is to poison trees, kill existing growth to make way for more profitable pines--even his job involves an element of self-destruction). Green works against the obviousness with everyday details heightened by regular collaborator Tim Orr's inimitable cinematography, the screen filled with gravelly railroads, rusted steel bridges, vase-littered front porches, all drenched liberally (like so much syrup) with gorgeous Texan sunlight.
It's no Beasts of the Southern Wild, no barely-in-control poetic-pretentious fable about the devastation wrought on Louisiana by Hurricane Katrina--if anything Green displays near-absolute precision, with hands loose enough on the steering wheel that the film doesn't feel overdetermined, claustrophobic. It's no Mud, which started out well enough, a Southern Gothic romance told through the eyes of a child (Sheridan again, who seems to have a lock on the type) then devolves into a faintly preposterous melodrama involving powerful mob bosses and yet another violent shootout.
It's no George Washington (Green's debut feature and in my opinion strongest work), which draws much of its power (and is near-indistinguishable) from real life. Joe builds to the standard-issue (albeit well-staged, shot, and edited) shootout, but moments do stay with you, not all loud--Joe teaching his young charge the Cool Smile (basically pull a pained grimace, then smile); Gary awkwardly pleading for work, later sampling his first can of cold beer. Then there's Wade, glaring straight at the camera with his unforgettably blue eyes, daring us to account for people like him.
First published in Businessworld 7.10.14