'Joe' review: Nicolas Cage reclaims his acting mojo

Rating

3.5 Stars3.5/5

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 11:38 PM ET

Joe is a damned depressing film about hardscrabble people on the margins of American society. Yet it is also a thrill to watch because of the superb performances of Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan.

Cage may be rehabbing his reputation as an actor, much like Matthew McConaughey did in the Arkansas drama Mud before his Oscar-winning turn in Dallas Buyers Club. Sheridan co-starred in Mud after being discovered in The Tree of Life. Cage and Sheridan make a fascinating duo in Joe, veteran Cage as the title character and upstart Sheridan as a displaced youth whom Joe mentors.

Cage plays an ex-con trying to tame the anger inside. He openly talks about trying to restrain his impulse to wreak havoc and do violence on stupid people who annoy him, whether they be cops or criminals. The film holds back details, but you get the sense Joe was the victim of an abusive childhood.

So he gravitates to Sheridan when the 15-year-old kid shows up with his alcoholic father (Gary Poulter) looking for work with Joe’s tree-poisoning crew. When the kid earns some money, the father beats him up and steals it. Cage’s Joe is inexorably drawn into the quagmire. The situation will inevitably lead to extreme violence, although I do not entirely buy the climax in Gary Hawkins’ screenplay, which was adapted from Larry Brown’s book.

Joe the film is a character study set somewhere in the U.S. southeast (although it was filmed in Austin and Los Angeles). This could be backward Arkansas, where director David Gordon Green hails from, or rural Mississippi, where the late novelist Brown grew up. Regardless, the people here live a familiar but dismal cycle of poverty, illegal work, drug and/or alcohol abuse and sexual depravity.

Joe the man indulges in some of those vices, but Cage also imbues him with a strange nobility. He never hurts anyone who does not deserve it. In his acting, Cage smoulders, stripping away his usual mannerisms. He owns Joe, making him personal, real and empathetic even when doing crazy stuff.

Green, of course, is best as a director when presenting the details of hard lives lived, as he did in his films George Washington, All the Real Girls and the best parts of Prince Avalanche.

None of these went mainstream. No one expects Joe to do so. But it is a worthy effort as it opens Friday in select cities in Canada and wide as a video-on-demand option.

Twitter: @Bruce_Kirkland

bruce.kirkland@sunmedia.ca


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