He’s an easy man to disregard. Sure, the bottom 85 percent of his filmography is earth-shatteringly bad. But every 10 years or so, he makes a really good movie. And if you blink, you’d miss films like “Adaptation,” “Raising Arizona,” “Matchstick Men,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Lord of War” or “The Weather Man.”
Go watch them and see what I mean. You won’t be disappointed.
One of the newest additions to the always-shifting Netflix line-up is the Nicolas Cage film, “Joe,” which premiered to much fanfare. I am always excited to see when Cage is going to remember he’s an actual actor, so I was on board.
The first thing to explain is that “Joe” is slow. And that “Joe” is trying really hard to be art.
There is not a terrible overabundance of plot in “Joe.” It’s set in one of those Southern dystopias that seem to halfway border on Hell. The main characteristics of the film are the overwhelming human misery and squalor, with the people all speaking words that only in the most creative charity sound like English.
Cage’s character — that’s right — Joe, is set in the middle of it all as some kind of gritty-Southern, fallen-angel, anti-hero badass. He smokes and drinks and has a big beard and is covered in tattoos. He solves all his problems, even those with the law, with a brand of morally-righteous violence that couldn’t be more male power fantasy if it tried — though try it certainly does. Joe provides something like 20 or 30 black-men jobs of “good, hard, honest work” like some kind of redneck Rockefeller. He even manages to drive the entire workforce around simultaneously in somewhat magical fashion with his great big masculine truck.
Joe is very masculine.
For most of “Joe,” I felt myself very involved in each individual scene. I was curious and absorbed with the world being created, and how nothing really felt real. Waiting for some manner of plot to appear was like a game of Whac-a-Mole. Characters just seemed to exist in their grungy wretchedness and this was absorbing enough for a time.
But two hours is way too long for a mood piece where almost nothing happens except for the occasional explosion of virtuous violence. Each time Joe would charge police officers threatening him with pistols and successfully slap them silly, I couldn’t help but think, “Good thing you’re white, Joe.”
Cage’s performance as Joe is plenty strong, even if the movie is trying way too hard to convince you just how dang cool he is. But the most striking performances came from Gary (played by Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old drifter, and his abusive, alcoholic father, Wade (played by Gary Poulter).
There is a problem with Hollywood where actors don’t look like “real” people. They’re usually just way more attractive. It’s not an unusual part of human nature to want to look at attractive people, but it often necessitates further suspension of disbelief, especially when the most beautiful people in the world are portraying “just good ol’ fashioned folks.”
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Poulter, however, was an actual homeless man with a slew of actual problems, such as bipolar disorder, alcoholism and a history of violence. Poulter doesn’t perform the way Cage does. He exists. Even before the film was released, however, Poulter accidentally drowned in a shallow pool due to ethanol intoxication.
This is the kind of hard reality that the film “Joe” is desperately trying to portray, but doesn’t, mostly coming off as heavy-handed and more than a little pretentious. As unrealistic and angelic as Joe is, the antagonists are just as irredeemable, their motivations just as nebulous. The epilogue is filled with the most obvious metaphors imaginable, with a rising sun and new growth. Like the rest of the movie, it’s all a bit too much “on the nose.”
It’ll probably be another decade before Cage manages to find himself actually making a decent movie. So people like me need to take what we can get.
Graham Gentz is a freelance reviewer for the Daily Lobo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @DailyLobo.