There’s something awfully familiar about Joe, David Gordon Green’s latest. The dead-end town. The multiracial workforce. The troubled boy and troubled father figures. The subplot revolving around a pet dog. But that’s not a bad thing. All of these elements can be found in Green’s incredible 2000 debut George Washington, a film that, for many of the filmmaker’s fans, was beginning to look like a distant memory.
George Washington earned praise for its understated drama, mesmerising visuals and powerful performances from its young, multiracial cast. The young filmmaker even earned comparisons to lyrical auteur and fellow Texan Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven). Malick must have taken notice of these plaudits, serving as a producer on Green’s third effort, Undertow. Unlike his debut and sophomore films, however, Undertow received a lukewarm reception from critics.
It was at this point that Green’s career took a remarkable U-turn. I don’t think I’ve seen one quite like it since. Green followed up the southern gothic tale Undertow with a move towards the mainstream, directing the entertaining stoner comedy Pineapple Express. A far cry from his earlier pictures, Pineapple Express was welcomed as an interesting change in pace, a successful display of the director’s versatility. Green always did have a goofy streak. It’s probably why he’s so good at directing young actors. However, the novelty of this new direction didn’t last.
Until recently, Green has stuck with comedy, first making fantasy film parody Your Highness and then following that with childcare comedy The Sitter. Audiences and critics were left underwhelmed. But with Joe, it appears that Green has come full-circle and returned to the themes and ideas that preoccupied him in the first place.
Joe tells the story of Gary (Tye Sheridan), a fifteen-year-old who has moved into town with his dirt-poor family, including his alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). Looking for work Gary stumbles upon a group of men poisoning trees. It’s here that he meets Joe (Nicolas Cage), the leader of the workforce, who offers him a job and an escape from his father. Their lives soon become intertwined.
There’s a lot to recognise from Green’s earlier films, but Joe doesn’t feel like a lazy rehash of old material. It feels like a return to form. Older and wiser, Green takes one of the central themes of his debut, the difficult relationship between adolescent boys and their unstable father figures, and reconsiders it from a different perspective. Twelve-year-old Nasia’s cryptic narration that held together George Washington’s narrative is gone (it feels a little derivative of Linda Manz’s in Days Of Heaven, anyway). This time around Green sees things from a paternal point of view, mainly taking the form of Joe.
Known for his manic performances, Cage plays this one with a little more restraint though the darker impulses that inflect his best work are always bubbling below the surface, erupting in sudden moments of brutal violence. The role balances Cage’s craziness with a subtlety that he is often guilty of lacking. The film’s finest turn, however, comes from first-timer Poulter who plays Wade, Gary’s abusive father. In a disturbing breakdown of the boundary between character and performer, Poulter, too, suffered from alcoholism and bouts of homelessness. Green’s casting crew found him sleeping rough on the streets of Austin, Texas. I’m undecided as to whether I think Poulter’s casting was inspired or exploitative. What is true is that he quite literally gives the role his all, lending the film a disturbing sense of unpredictability.
Poulter’s face is a story in itself. The lines and crevices seem to tell of a lifetime of bad decisions, run-ins with the law, relationships damaged beyond repair. His wild white hair and unkempt beard make him the perverse double of Cage’s Joe, one long past redemption. Now more monster than man. It’s a chilling performance.
Tragically, Poulter’s first role is also his last. In February of 2013, not long after the production of Joe was wrapped, he was found drowned in Lady Bird Lake, Austin, fallen victim to the demons that made his performance so harrowing.
Joe stands, then, not only as a reminder of the talent of its director and lead actor, but also as a glimpse of a talent that sadly never had the opportunity to flourish.