Directed by David Gordon Green
Joe is a grim, coming-of-age melodrama set in a small dying town, like that of The Last Picture Show. How anyone survives there is a mystery. For fifteen year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), his survival will depend on an ex-con named Joe (Nicolas Cage).
In so many coming-of-age movies we meet an innocent, naive character who will meet some combination of friends, mentors and love interests and then by the end find themselves alone again. That friend may betray them, the love interest may dump them, and the mentor may just pass away due to old age. Over the course of the story, of course, they help teach the protagonist a lesson or two, and by the end they can march onward, alone but full of hope and conviction. They have learned a universal lesson about life and about themselves and have been baptized in some way, now more of an adult.
Then there are these southern coming-of-age dramas that operate by a bit of a different code. In addition to Joe I’m thinking of Jeff Nichols’ Mud or maybe even Shotgun Stories. There are movies like Winter’s Bone and the aforementioned The Last Picture Show. There’s even a movie like What’s Eating Gilbert Grape.
In some of these films it seems you must scrape and claw just to survive. The protagonist may still be young and naive, but they are hardened by their circumstances. They fend for themselves, but that survival instinct has set them on a path that may lead to self-destructive behavior.
Enter the mentor figure, in this case Joe, who decides to step in and change their future. This person has a violent, checkered past and sees in the young protagonist their shot at redemption. If they can save this young soul then maybe theirs will have less to answer for when they finally succumb to a kind of death that orbits their every move.
And death is certainly on the mind in Joe. Everyone just looks unhealthy, and that’s setting aside all the petty criminals and addicts lurking around the corner who seem ready to bash your head in for a cheap bottle of wine.
This world is so bleak that it is almost satirical, but of what I’m not sure. Much of this film feels improvised and authentic, but other moments feel labored and borrowed from other stories. There is a bleakness to this film that alternately feels true to life and manufactured.
It’s then the film has no intention of critiquing or judging its characters that it works best. We see Gary entertain his piss drunk father, we see the workers helping Gary assimilate into their ranks, and then we see Gary and Joe bond as they ride around town looking for Joe’s lost dog.
But surrounding these moments there is so much filth to convey, filth of spirit and soul. Gary’s father abuses him and later stoops to disturbingly low places to get what he wants. Then there’s a broad, hideous character who operates like an Angel of Death rather than a man with any real personal motivation. When we first meet him he is already stalking Joe for a perceived grievance, and then he just loiters around in the background until the narrative demands he step in and wreak havoc.
These characters are purposefully ugly, but their antagonism never quite worked for me. They’re ugly just to be ugly, forced conflict to intervene on Joe’s and Gary’s kind-hearted relationship. It’s an ugliness that this world demands, or just an ugliness this bleak environment bred into them.
Joe suggests that such hatred, bitterness and pain is ingrained in their existence and, to a degree, in our own. These characters are tied to their environment or maybe they have manifested the decrepit township that surrounds them. They are stuck.
The antagonistic characters work then as manifestations of cold, uncaring reality. Everything is there to cut you down, for reasons explained and others left unknown. Every step you take may infringe on and offend another, and suddenly there’s someone else stalking you around every corner.
Joe is remarkably consistent in tone. It’s a cruel, grim world, but these characters surrounding Gary and Joe feel like chilling but hollow creations there to serve their storyline. As symbols they work well, but as characters there’s something missing.
The two most notable antagonists are Wade, Gary’s father, and Willie, the scarred man who stalks Joe. They are separate forces created by desperation and ego. One has lost just about everything, including his dignity, and the other cannot let any perceived slight go past unnoticed. In the end they will join forces for some truly despicable behavior, and abstractly that makes sense, the man with no dignity, and the man who subsists on his own ego.
But within the text it feels so melodramatic. They have no reason to work together, and until that point in the third act Wade in particular has shown no real ability to make a plan and stick with it. He stumbles drunkenly around town, often too wasted to stand, but suddenly he’s sober enough to deliver a lamb for slaughter.
Joe is effectively ugly, and the performances are pretty amazing. It’s grim and determined, and in any given moment it works quite well. As a whole, however, it’s a little too neat and in a way kind of snarky. There’s a heart here to the central relationship, the same heart you see in other David Gordon Green movies (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Prince Avalanche), but the surrounding antagonism feels a little too hollow.
Up Next: The Wicker Man (1973), Undertow (2004), Booksmart (2019)