The resurrection of David Gordon Green continues. If Prince Avalanche felt like an important step in the right direction, if ultimately a minor film, Joe is a masterwork. It makes the dark days of Your Highness and The Sitter seem like a bad dream and returns Green to his rightful place among the best American filmmakers working today. It’s the best movie that Green has made since Undertow, maybe since George Washington.
Joe opens on an eye staring out of a ravaged face. The back of a boy’s head blocks most of the rest of the face, leaving precious little context for that eye, which stares into the camera with a mixture of rage, resignation and the last dying embers of what once might have been human shame. It’s an image of queasy intensity and a tone that the film will manage to sustain for its entire runtime.
The eye belongs to Gary’s father, a true wretch of a man, a vile abusive alcoholic who has lived so poorly for so long that he’s reduced to a sunburnt husk for whom evil is reflex. Growing up in the environment this man has created has damaged Gary, turning him into a fifteen year old boy with near bottomless rage and a terrible ache to turn himself into something decent. Is it any wonder he throws himself at the first halfway acceptable father figure who doesn’t dismiss him out of hand?
That would be Joe, played by Nicholas Cage in his best performance in recent memory. He runs a small work crew, clearing forests so the lumber companies can plant different trees. He hires Gary and does his best to mentor him while dealing with Gary’s father and another local lowlife that are making both his and Gary’s lives more difficult than they have to be. Husky, soft spoken, afraid of what he’s capable of, Joe is a man whose core decency can’t help but give way to his self destructive impulses and demons.
Joe at once feels different from anything else that Green has made and completely of a piece with his career. It’s less impressionistic than Green’s other southern crime film, Undertow and indeed there is one particularly squalid act of violence so prolonged and ghastly in its pettiness that I could barely stand to watch. But it’s not a one-note miserablist slog, either. Green’s trademark lyrical interludes make their appearance, dubbed by Malickian voice overs, but are all the more effective for being so sparingly used. Rarely has the landscape in Green’s films been so beautiful and the people in the foreground so ugly. His trademark welcome robust sense of humor returns as well. Joe is often laugh out loud funny, particularly in a sequence where Joe teaches Gary how to make the perfect Nicholas Cage face. The long unforced scenes of happy bonding make it harder when the big emotional beats come down. The clashing of tones between poetic, profane and lackadaisical might seem schizophrenic if it didn’t all hold together so well. After all, life kind of does the same thing.
Joe isn’t a perfect film, it occasionally crosses the line from Southern Gothic into an unusually grim episode of Hee Haw, nor is it afraid of the occasional unsubtle metaphor, (right before embarking on a rampage Joe lets a vicious heretofore tethered dog off of its chain. Gee I wonder what they’re getting at?) But on the whole Joe is a work of relentless power and intensity. It’s a film by a great director operating at his peak form. I have rarely been so happy to see a return to form.