I have a list of people I’d like to meet and SXSW has often afforded me the opportunity to check names off my “Bucket List.” Sitting in on a press conference with Nicholas Cage, might not seem the same as meeting him, but it works for me. He and Tye Sheridan were in town in March for the premier of Joe, directed by David Jordan Green and based on a novel by Larry Brown and adapted for screen by Gary Hawkins. Not only did I love the time to ask the stars and director questions, but Joe is one of my favorite films of this year’s festival.
Set in rural Texas Joe follows Joe, an ex-con, who finds himself in a touching and unlikely relationship with a boy (Sheridan) desperately in need of a father-figure. Green chose Austin and surrounding areas as the backdrop to his poignant film and pulled from local people (some actors and some not) to play alongside his stars. Gary Poulter, who lived and two months after filming ended died on the streets of Austin, plays Gary’s cruel and foul father, and he nearly steals the show. Poulter, the man, was not that far removed from the character he played and the characters in Green’s film exemplify the bleaker side of life, where little exists except hardship and resentment.
Cage, in an emotionally intense performance, plays Joe with frenzy and fire and a full (quite impressive) beard. He spoke animatedly about the story, his director and his co-stars. And while he appeared and sounded just like I expected him to, Cage impressively transforms bringing raw emotion to Joe, a man who wants little more than to be left alone and to stay out of trouble. Joe is a dark, troubling tale of abject poverty and pain, of inner-conflict and external suffering and of choices. While his name is simple, Joe, the man, is not, and Cage shows us layer after complex layer as the story unfolds.
Fifteen-year-old Gary clings tightly to Joe, who works hard, but he also abuses booze and spends time in whorehouses – a person who most would see as the worst possible role model. Joe has qualities Gary badly needs – strength, stability, a job for him (felling trees – work that is more metaphor than real). After Gary stumbles onto the job site, Joe, reluctantly, becomes more than a boss. After first attempting to look the other way, he finds himself fighting his inner demons and Gary’s, drunk, abusive father.
Sheridan, who surprised audiences with his portrayal of a boy coming of age, in another SXSW film, MUD (2013), gives us an equally powerful performance in Joe. Both he and Cage seem to connect well in real life, and this is reflected in their on screen relationship. It is these compelling performances that make Joe different from other films about shady ex-cons and ordinary men, about men who try to turn away from trouble, but emotion and inherent compassion draw them back in. Green and his stars aren’t ordinary nor is Joe. When we watch, we don’t see Cage and his crazy sneer and overt quirkiness, we see Joe – larger than life, but in an everyman, common guy way – a man who looks unnervingly and flawlessly real in his dreary place and in a bushy beard, jeans and a plaid flannel shirt.
Joe, rated R, won’t satisfy enthusiasts of comedy or upbeat films, but it will gratify fans of Cage and Green. Life in Joe and Gary’s world is miserably bleak and Joe finds himself at a crossroad between redemption and ruin, drawing us in, pulling at our emotions and wringing us completely out. I am placing an A+ in my grade book.