Like “Shawshank Redemption”, the 2013 film “Joe” starring Nicolas Cage is hard to watch. It’s just too real. Cage, like Matthew McConaughey in “Mud”, brings to three-dimensional life the gut-wrenching, conflicted character that is “Joe” .
Joe is an ex-con working as a foreman for a big land owner. His huge heart is matched only by the rage that boils just below the surface. It’s like a beast he must keep chained or else his life will blow apart and hurt someone. The American Bulldog he keeps in his yard to warn off trespassers, is a type of Joe’s own character. When someone mentions the scars on the dog, Joe grins and says, “Yes, but the ones who gave them to him are dead”.
We are never told why Joe has so much rage, but he can’t stand to see the innocent or the down-and-out mistreated. He wants to make a difference. To give them a fighting chance at a life that does nothing but grind them under its heel.
It is apparent Joe’s workers love and respect him. And they sense that Joe would make their lives just a little bit better if he could. He meets those who want work at Coleman’s Store in his old truck. He asks about a worker who hasn’t shown up. “You fired him,” someone answered. “I’ve fired him three times,” said Joe. “And if he doesn’t come and help me out, I’ll fire him for good.”
“These men,” Joe tells a friend, “bust their asses. They work like dogs. I believe in them, but every day they hurt. They get old. They peel back.”
A boy wanders into their work camp wanting a job. He is Gary Jones, (Tye Sheridan) the 15-year-old son of a drifter. Gary proves to be a hard worker, trying his best to improve the lives of his battered mother and silent sister. They live in a tumbled-down abandoned house. Wade Jones (Gary Poulter), known as G-Daawg, is a somewhat deranged, abusive, alcoholic. His booze takes precedence over food and shelter. It is evident in every scene that his boy is the man of the house, in spite of the beatings he takes.
“Y’all cuttin’ these trees?” the boy asks Joe as they begin to talk of the job.
“We’re killing the trees,” said Joe, telling the boy they worked for a big land company. “They want to get rid of what’s on it so they can come in and put strong pines on it. Nobody wants these trees. These trees are weak. They’re not good for anything.”
Again these words reflect Joe’s feelings about his own life, and maybe the lives of the many hopeless he lives among.
His social life consists of a dark bar and the girls of a local brothel set up in a large old country home. He strides into the home one night after yet another run-in with Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a man who can’t seem to stop poking at the beast in Joe. In order to restrain his killing rage, Joe looks wild. He’s shaking, moving in all directions as if to light in one spot would defeat him. He needs a release. But the only girl available is a newby. This scene brings Joe’s tangled psyche into sharp focus. Even as he seems about to come apart at the seams, he will not treat the girl as if she is nothing. He fires questions at her like they were on a two-minute date — which could be darkly funny if your heart wasn’t bleeding for this kind man who tries so desperately to lock down his rage.
The movie “Joe” is not the type of movie I would normally recommend. In fact, I will say it is not for everyone. There are graphic scenes and hard language and lots of it. It is not for children. There is no way I would even watch it with my grown children, though I would recommend they watch it somewhere that I’m not. In other words, don’t invite your mother to see this movie with you.
That said, I believe it to be one of Nicolas Cage’s finest performances. I remembered Tye Sheridan (the boy), as Ellis from the movie “Mud”. He was so natural it was like a documentary of a teenage boy homeless and abused. He didn’t even know what insurance was.
But the father, the old man, the drunken, alcoholic drifter played by Gary Poulter, was on a level all his own. I told Mike, “He could actually BE a drunken drifter.” Well, surprise surprise. Gary Poulter was actually picked up off the streets twice to play a role — once as a background extra in Thirty Something, and later as a lead in Joe. Two months after filming Joe, Coulter died in a homeless settlement in Austin, Texas.