Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

(15) David Gordon Green, 117 mins Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter

It is strange to think that it is almost 20 years since Nicolas Cage won an Oscar for his performance as the suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas (1995) and three decades since he started playing mumbling, Marlon Brando-like anti-heroes or Elvis types in films such as Birdy (1984) and Peggy Sue Got Married (1986).

Cage's style hasn't changed much since then. His career has been erratic – but amid the saccharine kids' movies, misfiring comedies and mindless blockbusters, when he has been working with directors he trusts, he has given some truly astonishing performances. His ex-con in David Gordon Green's low budget, independent drama Joe ranks with his very best work.

The film is adapted from a novel by Larry Brown, a Mississippi firefighter who, in his 40s, decided to become a writer. Green's approach to his material might best be described as Southern Gothic, done Ken Loach style. With its fighting dogs, bar room brawls, scenes of brothels and of good ol' boys drinking or in scrapes with the cops, Joe resembles many other Southern-set dramas (although Green has relocated the original story to Austin, Texas). The film is shot in naturalistic fashion. The colours are muted. Green aims for a documentary-like style, using hand-held camerawork and real locations. He has an obvious fascination with the beauty of the natural world even as he is touching on such grim subjects as gun control, domestic violence and how poverty distorts lives.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is a deeply contradictory character. He has been in prison and hates authority. He drinks heavily and has an explosive temper. Yet he also has a fundamental decency about him. He runs a crew of "tree poisoners". It is arduous, badly paid, physical labour, but he is scrupulously fair towards his men. When teenager Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) approaches him for work, he hires the boy and takes a paternal interest in him.

The performance style is closer to Loach's Riff-Raff and Raining Stones than to more conventional Hollywood thrillers. Cage, in particular, immerses himself in his role. Bearded, and wearing his customary hangdog expression, he looks like a man who knows all about brawling, drinking and dog-fighting. When he is laying an axe into a tree or driving drunkenly away from the cops, he is surly and aggressive. At the same time, he has a sensitive side. Cage has sometimes overplayed in the past, straying into shambling, self-parodic hamminess. Here, he is in restrained groove and his performance is all the more truthful as a result.

The plotting is schematic. Joe sees aspects of his own personality both in Gary and in Gary's abusive, alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Whereas the teenager shares his very best qualities, Wade represents him at his worst. By saving Gary, he is trying, in a symbolic way, to save himself. "He could go good, he could go bad," Joe muses of the boy. Inevitably, he has to turn to the dark side of his own personality in order to protect Gary.

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Hangdog expression: Cage immerses himself in his role

The teenager is similar to the boy in Ken Loach's Kes. The odds are stacked against him; he is from a broken family and is expected to go the way of his wastrel father. Gary, though, has a streak of defiance, a warrior-spirit that is combined with a strong work ethic and an empathy for the suffering of others. Sheridan (who was "discovered" in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life and also appeared in Jeff Nichols' Mud) portrays the boy with just the right mix of machismo and doe-eyed sensitivity.

The film abounds in Fagin and Bill Sikes types. Poulter, a homeless man recruited on the streets of Austin, who died not long after Joe finished shooting, plays the teenager's father with malice and viciousness. In his only screen role, he offers an utterly compelling portrait of a man so consumed by self-loathing that he will go to extreme lengths to destroy the life of his son. In one scene, which plays like a short movie in its own right, we see him preying on another alcoholic whose booze he craves. His mean streak is established in the very first scene in which his son calls him a "selfish, mean drunk" and he responds by smashing the boy in the face. Green also allows him moments of lightness (his faltering attempts at break dancing, his disastrous stint on the forestry crew) and tenderness.

Ronnie Gene Blevins plays the scarred Willie-Russell with a sneering menace. He is one of many characters in Joe who takes a sadistic pleasure in grinding down those like Gary who have the temerity to try to rise above their circumstances. He is first seen shooting at Joe and then trying to beat up Gary. Like Wade, he is full of self-hatred, driven to behave badly by the humiliations he continually endures.

When Green made his first, tiny budget feature, George Washington (2000), he was acclaimed as a precocious young talent. The director was immediately championed by his fellow Texan Terrence Malick, who saw him as a kindred spirit and went on to produce his feature Undertow. Inevitably, he has sometimes struggled to live up to the expectations since then. Joe, though, has all the qualities that made him stand out in the first place. Green specialises in a soulful naturalism, and Joe contrasts moments of Malick-style lyricism with scenes of extreme brutality. Even at its most grim, the film is never judgemental about its characters. Best of all, Green coaxes a far more subtle and affecting performance from Cage than he has ever given in a Jerry Bruckheimer movie.

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