Thursday, April 24, 2014

Keeping It Real: David Gordon Green's Joe

Nicolas Cage (right) and Tye Sheridan in Joe, directed by David Gordon Green

For a guy who’s given a lot of pleasure to the world and who is in a risky, unstable profession where only John Cazale and possibly Maria Falconetti can claim to have achieved a perfect batting average, Nicolas Cage sure does take a lot of shit. When Cage was still in his twenties and sufficiently unguarded to talk about his artistic ambitions in a way that sounded nakedly arrogant, entertainment writers scored off him by calling him an ingrate who didn’t know how lucky he was to have been a part of an Oscar-winning crowd-pleaser like Moonstruck. When, after winning the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas, Cage recanted his expressed reservations about the mainstream and threw himself into the action-blockbuster marketplace with The Rock (in which he was very funny) and Con Air (in which he was less so), the wheel turned and it became fashionable to denounce the actor as a whore, and a hammy, eye-popping whore at that. Seriously, didn’t the world learn its lesson during that awful period when even the Bressonian purists at People magazine took to making fun of Michael Caine for his work ethic?

Cage, like Caine, clearly likes to work, and there are always too few worthwhile projects around. Just as clearly, the man has made some bad choices: say what you like about the very notion of a Ghost Rider movie, two of them are a lot. But compare Cage’s overall track record, and the jeering press he gets, to those of some other stars who the media treats reverentially, and you can see that not all bad decisions are regarded equally. Meryl Streep is supposed to be very intelligent, and after almost four decades of working in the theater and movies, she ought to have picked up on a few of the warning signs about which kind of plays transfer successfully to the multiplex and which ones don’t. Shouldn’t she have guessed how the film version of a stagebound scream-a-thon like August, Osage County was likely to turn out?

Nicolas Cage in The Weather Man (2005)
Cage has been in a lot of junk, and he’s given a number of extravagant, over-scaled performances in the effort to keep both himself and the audience entertained. But he’s also continued to do good, quieter work in movies like The Weather Man and The Frozen Ground, and I can’t remember him ever going over the top in a role that would have worked better if he’d played it more naturalistically (which is something I can’t say about, for instance, Jack Nicholson). In David Gordon Green’s white-trash melodrama Joe, Cage plays a hard-bitten loner and ex-con who runs a crew of men who work poisoning healthy but unwanted small trees, so that the lumber companies can replace them with pines. Cage does some of his best subtle work in years here; he’s effortlessly believable whether Joe is picking up a knife and skinning a deer carcass that just happens to hanging in a friend’s shack or taking a moment to light a cigarette before driving away from the scene of a hillbilly drive-by shooting. Unfortunately, what’s especially impressive about the performance is what also makes it feel, in the end, like kind of a waste: Cage’s believability in the role is pretty much all that the role amounts to.

Cage is an artist who’s an entertainer at heart; when he arrives on the set and finds that the opportunity for him to practice his art isn’t there, he still wants to find a way to entertain. David Gordon Green is a lot harder to figure. Green made his name with the 2000 George Washington, a striking-looking but humanly frustrating art movie, and he followed that up with a string of wan little pictures (All the Real Girls, Undertow) that were less visually impressive and increasingly dull in their storytelling. Then, starting in 2008, he jump-started his career with Pineapple Express, a stoner comedy that tapped into the Judd Apatow repertory franchise, while directing episodes of a TV show from the overlapping world of the Jody Hill-Danny McBride redneck-asshole factory, Eastbound & Down. Pineapple Express got over on the strength of James Franco’s performance, but in most of Green’s slob-comedy work (which includes the movies How High and The Sitter), the slovenliness of the filmmaking made it tempting to conclude that the director-for-hire was letting his contempt for his audience show.

Joe finds him squarely back in earnest-young-art-filmmaker mode, but that doesn’t mean that some part of the audience doesn’t have cause to feel insulted. In Joe which was adapted from the Larry Brown novel of the same name by Gary Watkins, a filmmaker who’s made documentaries about Brown and fellow Southern writer Harry Crews the cast-iron metaphors and life lessons only begins with that business of making one’s living by destroying nature’s bounty so that human beings can make a killing off larger bounty. The movie has barely been running for ten minutes before Cage is picking up a snake, lecturing the men around him on how lethally dangerous its bite is and then casting it aside to crawl away. “Don’t kill it,” says the dangerous but noble Joe. “It’s my friend.” The story has a similar Afterschool Special quality. Tye Sheridan plays the 15-year-old son of a hopeless, violent drunk (Gary Poulter), who takes a job working for Joe. One of his fellow workers tells him that Joe is a straight shooter who offers fair pay for honest, hard work, and instructs him that he must never look down at the ground when Joe is talking to him you meet his gaze, eye-to-eye and man-to-man. So it’s obvious right off the bat that Joe is going to become a father figure to the kid.

Tye Sheridan and Gary Poulter (right) in Joe
Having discharged his duty to announce the movie’s theme, Green spends the first hour and fifteen minutes of the film wallowing in Southern Gothic scenes of Joe encountering violence and squalor and the drunken father dishing some out; only then do Joe and the boy do much besides grunt at each other. An acolyte of Terrence Malick’s, Green seems much happier playing with symbols and establishing mood than at performing the basics of narrative storytelling that help to draw an audience in and give them their bearings; after a few minutes of watching Joe, you know enough about what the filmmakers are trying to say about manhood and survival below the poverty line to write a graduate paper, but you’re struggling to make out who the people on screen are and who knows who and what they mean to each other. By the time Joe and the boy are finally in a truck together exchanging aphorisms, Cage’s performance has begun to take on water, from sheer lack of any way to expand his character. The movie finally turns into one of those macho morality tales, like The Shootist and Gran Torino, about a man whose time has passed sacrificing himself to make the world the next generation will inherit a little less cluttered with killers and scumbags.

Sheridan, who gives a fine performance himself, appeared in last year’s Mud, another Southern indie about a disreputable father figure. That movie had less of an earth-toned, art-house polish, but it was more involving, and it had Matthew McConaughey, in a role that allowed for some romantic feeling and flamboyance. The only flamboyance in Joe is in some of the back story to the production, especially concerning Gary Poulter. Poulter, who died before the movie was released, was a non-actor with a criminal record, a substance abuse problem, and a bipolar condition who was homeless on the streets of Austin when he was discovered by the casting team that Green sent out to find him some “characters.” Like Bruno S.’s work for Werner Herzog, Poulter’s scenes raise questions about whether the director is allowing someone from the fringes of society to participate in a creative way or exploiting a human being as an exotic found object.

Poulter, who had a fine profile and a strong, unsettling onscreen presence, has an unscripted scene in which Brian Mays, a non-actor with a speech impediment who plays Joe’s work foreman, get into a heated argument. The footage wouldn’t have survived the editing room if either man was an actor, because you can barely understand a word either of them says, but Green must have seen the results and been thrilled with its “authenticity.” In another scene, Poulter’s character is so wasted that he can’t get up; reportedly, Green filmed Poulter when he was suffering from an alcoholism-induced seizure and really couldn’t get up. Green has talent and brains, and God knows he’s persistent. But as with, in a different way, Wes Anderson it’s possible to admire his talent and brains and still wish he’d give some evidence of knowing that people aren’t just these things that can be dressed up and placed in a composition to give off wild sparks.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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