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Nic Cage and Tye Sheridan in Joe

The new Nicolas Cage movie, Joe, directed by David Gordon Green, tells the story of a troubled middle-aged loner who befriends a 15-year-old boy who is in urgent need of a job and a role model. He gets the job easily enough – poisoning trees – but Joe as a protective father-figure is going to be hard work…

Poisoning trees? I hear you say. Yes, Joe and his troop of mostly uneducated African American men are poisoning trees so the old trees can be easily chopped down and replaced with more useful trees. 

Right there you’ve got the theme of the film: here is a bunch of people who must be ‘poisoned’ till they can be later disposed of to make way for better people. Joe is the Christ-like figure among them who has had to imbibe so much poison from this world that he is destined to unleash a cleansing violence upon the poisoned people around him and save the few good ones so life may finally improve. Does that sound like it may be a story set in the deep South? Y’all know it does.

The world of low wage and low life greener-than-usual Texas is captivatingly described with camera and assured direction. But what is missing is a plot, or at least one that has some coherence and urgency to it.

The catalyst comes when the boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), goes to Joe (Cage), asks and is granted a job. Having nothing but a deadbeat drunk for a father, Gary is in need of a dad. Cage having no family of his own, except maybe a ferocious American Bulldog, might be seen to be in need of a child to look after.

When Gary’s dad, Wade, played by Gary Poulter, finds out his boy has got a job, he wants in. Joe rather unwisely gives the old man a trial run, which turns out to be a disaster because of course the old man does very little except piss off the other people on the team.

Charging into this potentially interesting family and surrogate family triangle comes a completely random antagonist, Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) “some asshole at a bar”, whom Joe beat up prior to the opening of our story. This Willie-Russell dude now bears an unhealthy grudge against Joe and takes a pop at him one afternoon as he’s stepping out of a freind’s house. 

The script progresses trying to knit these two story threads together, but not very successfully – and this is where the film’s main weakness lies.

The shooting incident – Cage is only wounded in the shoulder – is doubtless there to add some urgency to the otherwise slowly unfolding action of the Joe-Gary-Wade story, but after the initial thrill of seeing someone shot at, we drift off into a swamp of off-screen stories that are never satisfactorily explored or even revealed.

For instance, is he a veteran? Is he suffering from PTSD? Was he an abused child? He clearly has a problem relating with women (“What’s the point of it all?” he says to a girl running from an abusive dad or step dad, i forget which, wanting to look after and be looked after by him.) And why does he have such a deep-rooted fear of losing it and killing someone? We later learn he spent 18 months in jail for assaulting a police officer. He claims the officer was about to shoot him and he acted in self-defence. This may well be true, but it happened off-screen and it’s just so moot that we quickly lose patience with it as a source of character motivation.

This asshole with a grudge taking a pop at Joe not surprisingly really stirs him up. And now he’s getting into scraps with the local police. We can see where this is all heading – another loss of ‘restraint’ on Joe’s part.

The brooding tone of the film tells us this is going to end – predictably – with Joe going Rambo. Let’s kill some bad guys and lowlifes, it just might give the boy the chance for a new start. So this is Joe’s noble sacrifice, but oddly it doesn’t move us all that much.

I think the reasons for this are essentially two-fold: one, we’ve become distracted by the story strand that is about a grudge that started before the film’s opening and, two, the person Joe goes to rescue at the end isn’t the boy, it’s the boy’s sister, who has been traded by the father for some back-of-a-truck sex deal with – guess who – our scar-face asshole, Willie-Russell and some other lowlife mate of his.

So, on the one hand, we don’t really understand the conflict between asshole and Joe and two, we’ve barely caught a glimpse of the sister in the whole film. Having heard from Gary that she hasn’t spoken a word in years we can safely assume she’s been physically and mentally abused by her dad, very likely sexually abused as well, but we haven’t gotten remotely acquainted with her. She’s more or less an object of pity, barely a character.

For me, the script’s biggest weakness is that the sister is brought in far too late. She’s virtually an after-thought, a plot device that finally propels Joe into one last act of losing his ‘restraint’, sacrificing himself for the boy and his sister.

There’s also a lot of repetition in the script that stifles plot and character development – and therefore our interest. It’s not so much the slow pace as the lack of any dialogue or even interaction that makes us a little more curious.

In True Detective, you have a similar world of lives apparently sinking in a sort of mental swamp – dysfunctional middle-aged men with drinking problems and lots of mental scars. The pace is slow, the mood even more brooding, and yet the men talk about what ails them, they show us an awareness and humanity that is layered, nuanced, and because they give us enough of themselves for us to hope they might one day come to a less troubled existence, we remain interested in their development and the way in which they affect the lives of others.

Not only does everyone mumble in Joe – and it gets even more impossible when the mumbling has to compete with the score – no one talks about anything at all interesting really. Doubtless the writer’s point would be, well, this is true to this kind of life. Maybe so, but this sort of sleepy alcoholic outback is no longer novel and without a spark of intellect watching it grind on langurously becomes as soporific an experience as the humidity.

Whereas, if the Joe-Gary-Wade dynamic had been explored more fully in the first half and had included the sister and the mother, we might have had a more challenging story about family and the role of a godfather-like figure. 

Instead, that stronger story gets sidetracked by the grudge storyline, which involves the scar-face asshole and Joe, an off-screen incident and history that we remain fairly clueless about. What’s more, the scar-face ‘asshole’ is pretty much a southern-fried cliché. Yet another leering, drunken nihilist, who preys on the weak and is secretly seeking his own self-destruction. He’s less a character than a sort of irritant that unhinges an otherwise good man turning him violent.

By far the most memorable thing about the film is the performance by Gary Poulter as the boy’s dissolute dad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone play daytime drunkenness so convincingly. Given that he was a homeless actor the casting crew picked upon on the streets of Austin, I suppose it’s quite possible he was actually drunk during some of his scenes.

His performance is more layered than Cage’s: Wade is a bully but not a sadist; he is a man who has lost his pride and yet still wants to be a good father in spite of everything – and is that not the definition of tragedy right there, knowing you are doing wrong but unable to help yourself? Poulter played the part with menace, pathos and the kind of indifference and lassitude many trained actors overcook. Such a shame to read that he has since died. RIP Mr. Poulter. He was a rare find indeed.

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