' ' Cinema Romantico: Joe

Monday, April 21, 2014


The name Joe denotes such a certain kind of American masculinity, the kind that drives GMC’s and has a hard labor job to do and beers to drink after it’s done and perhaps a punch or two to throw in between, that it has rendered a sizable idiom within the lexicon. And “Joe”, the seventh feature film of eclectic Texan filmmaker David Gordon Green, is awash in this masculinity, being as how it revolves almost exclusively around combustible males, in particular a father, a father figure and the young boy caught between two who is fighting to come of age in a place where hanging on seems the best for which one could possibly hope.

That young boy is Gary, a 15 year old with a home life so unstable he may as well be a vagrant. He is played by Tye Sheridan, and while the role may not sound like much of a departure from his work in another recent southern-fried film, the extraordinary “Mud” of 2013, upon closer inspection, he is playing this part with a whole different bent. Sheridan may be older here but he feels younger, less self-assured and less resourceful, purposely a product of his sketchy environment. Still, he’s smart enough to know he doesn’t want to end up like his driftless old man, and so when he stumbles upon a wooded job site one day, he clamors for a job on the crew.

So often work at the movies is mere window dressing, like the newspaper columnist without any deadlines, but the work in “Joe” is real, not just in the manual labor intensity of it but in the way it drives and lifts up and puts down these tough-talking men. The title character, a noble if complicated soul, played by a disheveled Nicolas Cage with a downhome goodwill that masks and eventually gives way to a hotheadedness that the actor makes clear he prefers, runs a ragtag company in Texas that is hired by lumber companies to poison trees past their prime to make them easier to chop down. These early scenes have a remarkable atmospheric rhythm, a fatigue the back-breaking work creates but also the dignity the mere notion of employment engenders.

These are prideful men, aware of their flaws, literally trying to work them out through the work, and it is almost exclusively men. Women hover, barely, in the background, reduced to browbeaten wives as well as whores whom Joe regularly visits as another means to exercise the demons within. A girl he’s seeing, sort of, suggests how proper it might be if they got dressed up one night and went to dinner. It smells like a payoff. It isn’t. His heart is gracious, it’s not gold.

The film is based on a 1991 novel by Larry Brown, yet its similarities to “Gran Torino” are noticeable. That was the 2008 Clint Eastwood opus tracking a grizzly man who becomes not only an unlikely mentor to a young protégé, but sacrifices himself to, in essence, protégé a way from a no-way-out situation. “Joe’s” plot shares a similar tract, and even works in a symbolic vehicle of its own, as Joe himself becomes untraditional mentor and while the ultimate catharsis feels genuine, the plotting is somewhat incongruous. For instance, the character of Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), is an apparition of antagonism, drifting in and out of the picture, only appearing if confrontation is required for story advancement. Joe himself, meanwhile, is bestowed a sense of fatalism that so neatly aligns with the film’s concluding turns, it becomes less fatalistic by the end than pre-ordained luxury.

The soul of the film, paradoxically, is its most despicable character, Wade, the father of Gary, played by Gary Poulter, a non-actor whom Green literally plucked off the street (and who has an incredible and incredibly sad real life tale). There is virtually nothing to redeem him. He is in poverty and willing to steal from his own son just to have a few bucks. He is an alcoholic and willing to beat a homeless man for a bottle. Cash and Liquor come before Blood and work of any sort – let alone hard work – are impenetrable concepts to him. The last one would appear “Joe’s” primary interest, a degenerate who retains an almost wicked sense of entitlement contrasted against a son desperate to prove self-worth.

It’s an ancient tale – sons paying for the sins of the father. Which might suggest story obviousness on the part of “Joe” but then part of its aim is to demonstrate how the cycle consumes – how the son claims he won’t follow in his father’s un-heroic footsteps, only to follow in them anyway. Overcoming where we come from by being who we are is no simple task, yet with a little help from Joe, it appears possible Gary might just succeed.

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