Through the singlemindedness of its perspective, Taxi Driver made us empathize with a man we could not condone. If Travis could somehow be condoned based on the comparative badness of his surroundings, then I wouldn’t know what to think of him. That’s where I am with Joe. Nicolas Cage plays him like a man who doesn’t deserve purgatory because he thinks that he does. He has a good heart that he wishes someone would take off his hands. But our invitation to his psyche got lost in the mail. Without Joe’s perspective of the world he hates, there’s nothing – not even resentment – with which we can empathize. Joe is left merely with things we can’t condone.

This doesn’t prevent it from stopping your blood with its performances. The depth of Cage’s eyes describes hurt in ways that words fail. The performance is subdued, animalistic work, Cage on a tether. The world has obviously left him here, on location in unholy squalor (he seems like he’s two inches tall hiking inside a dumpster). But knowing how he got here is not the same as getting his perspective. We learn about the trouble he’s been in, but we have little insight into why he’s troubled. This wouldn’t be a problem in a film about natural evil, the kind that just lives in filth and goes on and on without resolution. But for lack of insight, Joe forces its lead character into an average mold: the foregone ending of an action hero going all-out and taking a bullet to the pecks is undeserved by a film energized by his ambiguity more than his heroism. At the very least, Joe’s final battle, should he require one, should have been a ragged bar brawl with wild eyes and broken glass. We get a shootout in the dark from behind parked cars.

Joe stands out in his surroundings, for the shred of dignity that he brings to his bad work. This setting consumes you – the squalor of this place is profane and alien. Rarely is a scene set so completely; the detached crudity of the architecture puts Joe in a place made completely from its demeanor. The broken shanties along an unused highway in the middle of nowhere seem built to match its people. This is where Gary (Tye Sheridan) and his family, a drunken father and a helpless mother and sister with scared animal eyes, come to squat. Gary impresses Joe with his uncomplicated devotion to working hard, though we can see the truth that Joe sees a version of himself before working too hard broke his devotion. Joe is a foreman on a barely-legal venture to poison trees to clear a construction site. Banter with the crudely well-meaning workers enhances the loyalty between the little pocket of folks in their miserable nowhere. The assistant foreman particularly never stops talking long enough to be discernible; yet we make it out from inflection how he means us to take his orders. There’s a lot of posturing in Joe, people straightening themselves for those they respect, and demeaning themselves before those they don’t.

Gary’s dad demeans everyone, as perhaps the truest expression of self-loathing that film can manage. He boozes himself into a temper and beats Gary’s wages out of him – this is his idea of a hard day’s work. He’s a swooning, slack, self-immolating evil, the kind of cruelty that exists only when there’s not even preservation instinct left to hold the man upright. His eyes are positively dead.

An actor would have stuck out in this place; this man radiates it. Gary Poulter was a homeless drunk living in Austin, Texas when he was cast as the father in Joe, as De Sica scraped up ragamuffins for the scenery of another kind of squalor in Bicycle Thieves. The man has a smell on screen. I don’t recall experiencing him in a change of clothes.

Gary Poulter was found face-down dead in a lake before Joe was in theaters. The man lit onto the screen like an expression of himself, or an idea of the self he had allowed to exist for so long. Even great actors fail in this. His loathing might have been real, or it might have been his regret, and here was the chance to motivate his filth into movement. For a moment he was a grunge star, the perfect fixture of a despicable mise en scene. Using Gary, Joe makes the real world more transitory than its shanties: this one man will be preserved forever, out of the millions who lived just like him. Twain might be appropriate here, that dying would be the least complaint of a man who lived like that.

Joe must feel the same way. He makes love to a prostitute who sees the working boy beneath his history. But he doesn’t see her. He looks out to make sure his dog’s okay – a scrappy lady Pitbull he calls “Dog” – and he reluctantly sees young Gary waiting for someone to stop his life from dying like a poisoned tree in someone else’s way. When he intervenes in the drunken father’s pleasure beatings, Joe has to acknowledge that he cares about someone, which he knows makes him vulnerable, which is more painful to him than dying. All his energy is spent stifling his rage; when a cop so much as looks at him he feels cornered in a world of bullies. Cage spends the whole film restraining Cage. The eruption is glorious, even if the events are stodgy.

David Gordon Green extracts all the fire he can from $4 million in Joe, a film that would not have more authenticity if he built the entire state in which it takes place. There isn’t one actor in the whole film, not even the people who call themselves one. Joe won’t change your life because it doesn’t know what that’s like. And unlike Taxi Driver, where a perspective on deviancy draws you into a man, Joe is a routine of decisions by people who don’t know what motivates them. They dredge each other up, contest each other’s eyes, slump into their flaws and occasionally even rebel against evil. Joe is a snapshot where a movie should be, and I’d expect Joe to be there still, slow-burning his goodness into indecisive oblivion. A movie plot – complete with kidnappings and shootouts – unnecessarily made this tiny universe finite. Somehow I still expect it to be standing in the woods somewhere, deserted except for squatters, the world’s junk drawer, where all the scraps get together for a hard day’s work in the hope that at some point they’ll remember what it was like to be whole.


Image is a screenshot from the film.

Cast & Crew

David Gordon Green

Gary Hawkins (screenplay)

Larry Brown (book)


Joe Ransom Nicolas Cage
Gary Jones Tye Sheridan
Lacy Heather Kafka
Wade Gary Poulter
Willie Ronnie Gene Blevins
Junior Brian Mays
Merle Sue Rock

Official Trailer


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