Playing in competition in the 2013 Venice Film Festival, David Gordon Green’s Joe was at something of a nexus point for both the film’s director and leading man, Nicolas Cage. Another tale of the American South, focusing on handheld camera work, intimate connection with characters and broad thematic concerns, Gordon Green was looking to replicate the success of his previous festival favourite Prince Avalanche and move away from his recent underwhelming comedies The Sitter and Your Highness.1 Cage had potentially found a comeback film of sorts, something more akin to arthouse than action – he’s had three pseudo-remakes of Taken in the last few years so anything that could garner him acclaim, and actually use his considerable talent, was going to be worth a viewing. It’s a shame, then, that Joe is such a deeply flawed film, both narratively and technically. Gordon Green appears to have regressed from his earlier Southern-set features, with Joe paling in comparison to the recent films of Jeff Nichols, most notably Shotgun Stories and Mud.
The film, though it runs just under two hours, feels much longer by virtue of a lack of actual narrative focus. Whilst we open on Gary (Tye Sheridan), a young boy whose alcoholic father has caused them to move from town to town for as long as he can remember, the film is predominately concerned with Joe (Cage), who runs a tree-poisoning crew and hires Gary. The film has these two narrative plots – one of a wholly broken family, the other of an apparently broken man, and never effectively intertwines them, leaving swathes of time in the middle of the film where there is little actually happening. There’s also a cartoonish villain with scars on his face whose conflicts with Joe appear childish when described in dialogue and who manages to get involved in Gary’s life through a laughably bad argument on a bridge.2 In fact so much of this film could be put down to cartoonish simplicity, from how the characters interact (abusive father to new tortured father figure) to narrative decisions. For a fifteen-minute stretch of the film Joe moves from one location-based cliché to another, in run-down houses with shady backrooms, from a brothel to a gambling den, all telling us less about Joe as a character (other that the obvious participation in ‘illegal’ activities) than it is setting up cheap contextual window dressing to the notion of a Southern morality tale.
Much of the film’s misguided focus could be put down to Gary Hawkins’ screenplay, but also to the fact that the film is adapted from a book. This does explain, in part, why there are so many narrative concerns – at times it feels like two different films rolled into one – yet here the anchoring of the film to one character and attempting to assume pathos from him fails by virtue of a lack of connection via the visual image. The cinematography of the film can be divided in two between the exterior and interior scenes. The exterior shots, such as those in the forest as Joe and his team poison trees, are bright yet not wholly appealing, lacking the crafted look of Prince Avalanche and are too focused on yellow tinges. It’s not enough to show heat, rather it just acts as a juxtaposition with the dark interior scenes. These are some of the worst shot parts of the film, garish neon lighting and underlit profile shots remain visually unappealing and uninvolving. There’s a cheapness to it beyond any thematic reading.
Cage’s performance is interesting, to a point. He rarely gets to do much outside assert his physicality in the film. It’s a transformation, for sure, but the film never lets him cut loose and do something electric, arguably what Cage is best for. It feels like he spends the film unsure whether to be wholly restrained or unhinged, and rather than create a compelling tightrope of tone, instead it comes off as a confused performance. The film seems unsure if it is actually a character study of Joe, not only because of this messy tone but also because we are given little non-superficial insight into his character. Tye Sheridan, who appears cast solely because of The Tree of Life and Mud, is solid enough but his work pales to his performances in those earlier features, in particular Mud.
The film is jarring early on as a result of almost amateurish editing, devoid of naturalistic rhythm or clear purpose, first noticable in a scene in which Joe drops off his workforce at the end of the day. The film also overuses slow subtle zoom-ins on Joe or other characters, even slight panning shots have the same effect – it’s melodramatic and, in a film that would have benefited from an actual commitment to more social realism (as it doesn’t do enough to set up a fantastical nightmare world), undermines the narrative drive. The musical score is also guilty of undercutting narrative action, too clearly telegraphing movements in a scene and almost draining the genuine tension.
There are some engaging elements to the film, though. A subplot featuring Joe’s dog was handled with dark humour and visual restraint, allowing a pretty brilliant shot of the dog in the back of Joe’s ute. There’s also the central notion of a cycle of violence that, although it doesn’t entirely succeed in being profound, does glance at interesting concepts. What the film actually says or conveys, however, is less clear. While it continued to have thematic exposition by way of dialogue or, oddly, voice-over narration, even this telegraphing or over-explanation still didn’t provide much outside of the clichéd character archetypes or narrative desires. There is also a paradoxical element to Gordon Green’s filmmaking, that being that the most enjoyable scenes are those untethered to narrative – think the burnt house scene in Prince Avalanche – even here there are some sequences that work because of their freeform nature, yet the need to tie them back to a rigid and uninteresting character arc dims the power of these more improvisational sequences.
The DVD transfer itself is also quite mediocre, any interior scene seems pixelated in its details (not helped at all by the unpleasant colour palette) and often even exterior scenes look poorly rendered. The special features aren’t praiseworthy either – while there are have interviews with cast members they are oddly chopped up to only reveal the answers to questions and, at 480p, look cheap on a television. The behind the scenes segment, while interesting from a production standpoint, is merely the film’s B-roll.
Whilst I wasn’t particularly wowed by Prince Avalanche, it is a far superior film to Joe. Where the former features a consistent tone and style, not to mention slightly better character evolution, the latter is bogged down by its scattered aim and execution.
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