(US - 2014)
Directed by David Gordon Green. Written by Gary Hawkins. Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Milton Fountain. (R, 118 mins)
At first glance, the rural drama JOE--not a reimagining of John G. Avildsen's controversial 1970 film--would appear to be a lot like last year's MUD, starting with Tye Sheridan again cast as a troubled kid who finds an unlikely role model played by an actor with something to prove. Where MUD saw Sheridan bearing witness to the McConnaisance, JOE finds the gifted young actor--who also co-starred in Terrence Malick's THE TREE OF LIFE--paired with Nicolas Cage in his best role in years, turning in the kind of performance that made him such a captivating presence in his younger days up to his Oscar-winning turn in LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995). Cage seemed to stop exerting himself once "Academy Award winner" was guaranteed to preface his name for the rest of his life. Sure, there were entertaining popcorn movies--it's hard to argue with the likes of THE ROCK (1996), FACE/OFF (1997), and CON AIR (1997), and the NATIONAL TREASURE films were dumb fun. But in recent years, Cage has become a case study in talent-squandering starting with the ill-advised remake of THE WICKER MAN (2006), which has become a modern-day bad-movie classic, and continuing with a string of increasingly phoned-in and decreasingly distributed paycheck gigs brought on mostly by the actor's serious financial issues in the late '00s. But even amidst the drek, there were some good performances in films like THE WEATHER MAN (2005) and LORD OF WAR (2005), Werner Herzog's insane THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS (2009) and KICK-ASS (2010). Looking over his credits from the last decade, there's numerous examples of Cage either not giving a shit (BANGKOK DANGEROUS, GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, SEASON OF THE WITCH, STOLEN) or hamming it up to provide material for future YouTube videos of his overacting, but are his list of duds and misfires worse than any other coasting A-lister in a career lull? One could certainly argue that we've been a little too hard on Cage, but it's only because he, like the frequently-criticized Robert De Niro, is capable of so much more than what he's been doing. If you miss the Cage of old, the Cage that made LEAVING LAS VEGAS so devastating, the Cage that existed prior to the line "Killing me won't bring back your goddamn honey!" then JOE will be a most welcome surprise.
Poulter was a homeless man discovered by casting associates whose only experience was once being a background extra on THIRTYSOMETHING 25 years earlier. He was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after filming wrapped, and was found lying dead in shallow water a month after that. For someone who had no acting experience, Poulter commands the screen like a veteran pro. Knowing Poulter's own unfortunate story, it's impossible to watch his terrifying performance and not imagine the dark shit he'd experienced in his life. He was only 54 when he died, but looks about two decades older. There's a simmering rage behind Poulter's eyes that's disturbingly real in his scenes with Sheridan, as G-Daawg verbally and physically abuses Gary before stealing his hard-earned money. You'll hate G-Daawg like you've hated few movie villains in recent memory (Blevins' pathetic Willie-Russell is just as awful a human being), and Poulter is so good here that he manages to steal the film from the two stars.