SXSW Film: ‘Joe’

Cage and Sheridan star in this dark, gritty yet beautiful film.

Cage and Sheridan star in this dark, gritty yet beautiful film.

Life & Arts Editor

Nicolas Cage is an enigma. He is intense, passionate and some might say toothy. His filmography presents one of the most interesting and unsettling potpourris in cinema history.

Consider his unexpectedly charming performance in “The Weather Man” (2005) or his bizarre yet delightful dual roles in “Face/Off” (1997). Juxtapose this with the train wreck that was the “National Treasure” sequel, or “Ghost Rider,” or–if you dare–the unspeakable vacuum of talent that was “The Wicker Man.” 

Cage’s latest appearance in “Joe” (directed by David Gordon Green) is even more of an enigma, though for different reasons. The most pressing question here is how the stars aligned in such a perfect way that Cage delivered a wonderful performance in an exceptional film.

“Joe,” an adaptation of a 1991 novel by Larry Brown, is a movie about redemption. The titular character (Cage) finds himself the unwitting role model of adolescent Gary (Tye Sheridan), who struggles with an alcoholic and abusive father. Joe himself is not exactly a fine upstanding citizen, though, with a rocky past and precarious mental stability. As Gary tries to break out of his suffocating living situation, Joe begins to question his own choices, responsibilities and worth. The progression of the plot is explosive yet exceedingly sincere, with an almost Shakespearean treatment of  everyday tragedy in rural America.

Green balances scenes of gritty realism (Cage’s character skinning a deer in a dingy kitchen while family members talk over each other and bicker) with quiet, almost surreal sequences of pure visual poetry. He never leans too far in either direction, though–he avoids unnecessary shouting matches yet resists overly-romanticizing the film’s rural setting.

Cage’s portrayal of the thoroughly-troubled Joe anchors the film. As Joe’s blood pressure rises, so does the audience’s, and Cage’s high-stakes yet convincing performance carries the viewer through the dark, frenzied plot. His chemistry with Sheridan is touching, realistic and powerful.

Maybe Cage’s career is so bizarre because he trusts directors too much, or because he takes literally any role that comes his way. Maybe his hits and misses comprise a sort of cryptic pattern that tell of the coming apocalypse. Maybe he is just trolling us all.

Whatever the case, “Joe” is easily Cage’s most complex and dynamic performance in a while. The movie’s plot and character development matches his natural intensity, and the instances of dramatic screaming or staring are completely called for and cohesive with the rest of the film.

And finally, to reiterate, Cage skins a deer. See it.