Once hailed as one of the next great American directors, David Gordon Green’s career is in a strange place. Making his name on a series of small-scale Southern dramas (George Washington, All the Real Girls), the filmmaker went to Hollywood and still made pictures that felt off-kilter (Pineapple Express, Your Highness), yet seemed from an entirely different headset.
Now, Green’s been working low-key again, just now with bigger name actors. His 2014 picture Joe was largely talked about as a return of a different sort, that of Nicolas Cage’s. Once a major star and respected player in mainstream cinema, complete with a well deserved Oscar, Cage has become more punch-line than draw of late. Looking through Cage’s upcoming slate, it would appear he’s heading back towards the schlock that has paid the bills in recent years.
In Joe though, Cage proves once more that he is more than tics and wild eyes. As the titular character, Cage portrays an ex-con who runs a small business where he and his crew clear trees out from areas where future temples, malls and the like are to be constructed. He’s the strong, silent type; afraid of what’s inside him. When the teenager Gary (the terrific Tye Sheridan) comes begging for work, Joe is hesitant to help. He sees the trouble in Gary’s life, particularly an alcoholic and abusive father, and knows that his gut reaction to conflict is a violent one.
Narratively, the movie is a shade meandering and flat. These characters aren’t especially deep or surprising. What makes Joe worthwhile are two things; the acting and the atmosphere. Cage is really good, giving a subtle turn. You can see his mind cycling through the outcomes of his every decision, fighting his innate instincts. He manages to be both warm and kind of frightening. Sheridan is his equal here, a young actor whose given a string of performances that define him as one of, if not the, best American actor under 20.
As for the atmosphere, it really is Green’s specialty. He captures an essence of life in the rural South that refrains from pandering or simplifications. Green skips the easy lingering on poverty or religion that many filmmakers get stuck on and instead sees a quiet beauty in the landscape. We see bridges that have molded with the overgrown grass and homes that have sunken back into the soil as trees hover over them like a protector. His Southern dramas have always had an aura to them that is enticing, even as he hasn’t developed into a great storyteller. Perhaps that’s why his first two movies remain his best, skipping over heavy plotting for character work.