There is only one scene in Joe, a sweaty slice of Deep South drama, that would make it onto the fabled YouTube showreel ‘Nicolas Cage Losing His Sh*t’.
That four minutes of glorious scenery-chewing, eyeball-popping and overacting, taken from some of the dafter moments of a more than 30-year career, has played its part in Cage becoming a figure of fun. As has his recent output, which has been patchy. And that’s being generous.
In his defense, Cage has just resolved a long-running tax case with the US government, which he financed by making a lot of bad films. Suffice it to say, quality control wasn’t at the top of his agenda when the paychecks for the Ghost Rider franchise could be made out to Uncle Sam.
So there have been many years of formulaic fun and games with genre movies that couldn’t afford Liam Neeson or Vin Diesel — Seeking Justice, Stolen, Trespass, Drive Angry, there are many more.
But now there’s Joe in which Cage, thanks mainly to director David Gordon Green, gives a performance of such generosity that he can perhaps be forgiven for The Wicker Man (although that reserved a special place in hell for director Neil LaBute).
Cage plays the title character, an ex con making a living running a fairly illegal forest-clearing team so far in the South that all the homes have chickens living in them. Joe is a man frustrated by the restraints he feels under, and his brushes with the law are frequent.
Joe, the movie and the man, is shot through with hard living. The Deep South doesn’t look any more like America than it did in Southern Comfort, a film made 30 years ago and set 40 years ago. Dirt and desperation are the only things keeping people going.
Joe’s shot at redemption comes in the guise of Gary, a 15-year-old itinerant mannish boy hoping to work his way apart from his serially abusive father.
In other hands this could have descended into schmaltz but director Green, having one of his better days, gently coaxes the story out and keeps Cage on a tight leash. It helps that Gary is played by the mature-beyond-his-years Tye Sheridan, fresh from fronting down Matthew McConaughey in Mud, and that much of the rest of the cast are amateurs.
Gary Poulter, who plays Gary’s monstrous father Wade, was homeless when he was cast. Similarly, the crew for Joe’s tree-felling day job are not pro actors. This leaves Cage with no-one to act off the screen, so as a result he turns in his most restrained performance since Adaptation in 2002. In the one scene that could make it onto the YouTube showreel of shame — a bar-room brawl — Cage pulls back from the brink, right at the last. Next up for Cage is a Paul Schrader flick and then a drama based around the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Not a Ghost Rider in sight.Nic Cage is back, baby. Vive la France!