I’ve made my complaints previously, so there is little need to reiterate. I went off Cage for a while. I really loathe vigilante films, with few exceptions. Cage played the wronged law-abidin’ citizen protagonist in both Trespass and Seeking Justice in the same year (2011) and I could not be fussed with that noise. But I’ve recuperated and so, it seems, has Cage, because he’s on form in David Gordon Green’s brutal and only moderately overcooked Joe.
I’m not going to spend much time on the subject, but Joe is a card-carrying Serious Movie and, as such, ventures into the territory of sexual violence and incest, without the depth and sincerity that I feel those topic deserve. Certainly, the film is not explicit. But neither is it an easy watch.
Joe is the story of one man’s redemption through his relationship with damaged but plucky 15-year-old boy, Gary (Tye Kayle Sheridan). Gary and his embittered, loathsome father, Wade (Gary Poulter) trek their way across the back-woods of Austin, Texas, with Gary taking jobs to earn money to support his sister and mother – money that Wade invariably steals and drinks away. Gary takes a job with Joe (Cage) hammering poison into the trunks of trees so they can be legally cleared for deforestation. Joe becomes something of a surrogate father figure for Gary but, as an ex-con, he is a man with enemies and a violent temper to keep in check.
So, the story is a furrowed-browed examination of what it means to be a man. The characters are all a little stock Southern Gothic, with scant examination behind the evil that men do, apart from the sense that there are men whose goodness is ossified through poverty and drink. Indeed, as a wounded protector figure, Cage is not miles away from being the vigilante archetype that tends to arouse my suspicions – the bad man less bad than other bad men by virtue of certain masculine-coded qualities (decency; bravery; strength) not possessed by the more feminized villains. The healthy sexuality of the ‘hard man with a heart of gold’ (as illustrated through thrusting, manly heterosexual intercourse) is set against the twisted deviancy of the male antagonists. There is an implication that Wade is an incestuous child rapist and while I was grateful for the lack of exploitative detail in this regard, I never had the sense that his daughter’s victimhood was important for anything other than to illustrate the depths of evil of her father and the comparative righteousness of Cage and his surrogate son.
Which is not to say that Wade is anything other than an entitled, scrawny shit of a man. There is clearly no goodness in him and Poulter’s performance is quietly terrifying. However, for once I’d like to see a film about masculinity in which the hero is somewhat less brooding and muscle-bound and heterosexual, but still a decent human being. Not all deviancy from the norm is evil and an audience can recognise that a man is a nasty piece of work without making him a child rapist to seal the deal. More homosexual action heroes please! Perhaps I am channelling Anita Sarkeesian’s brilliant commentary on gendered violence as background decoration here, but I think it is important not to use incest or rape as little more than flavour text to add a gritty atmosphere to a film and cement the evil of a villain, especially if the emotional and psychological fall-out upon the victim is neglected and ignored. Indeed, in Joe, we see very little of Gary’s mother and sister (Brenda Isaacs Booth and Anna Niemtschk) except glimpses of their perpetual victimhood. The horror of their lives may be accurately portrayed, but I wanted to know more about these characters, who deserved more than being made mere props in other men’s stories.
However, while I have my problems with Joe as a film, Nic was on fine form. The character of Joe is first introduced sitting behind the wheel of his car, his face obscured by a rain-spattered windscreen. This is appropriate, because Joe is a man who chooses to keep his past well hidden. We have discussed here before how Cage is a gestural actor, who resists a lot of the truisms of the Stanislavski or method actor school. He crafts his characters around tics, mannerisms and obsessions, sometimes working through imitation (as in his wonderful Elvis channelling performance in Lynch’s Wild at Heart), often giving external expression emotional states that more traditional, ‘worthier’ actors would leave internal. This isn’t to say that Nic never gets inside the mind of a character, but that he does so with an odd, almost child-like literalism (Ghost Rider listens to The Carpenters and enjoys jelly-beans; Sailor in Wild at Heart loves his snake skin jacket; etc.)
As such, Cage’s performance as Joe signifies emotional depth, without there being any indication of what this depth might entail. It’s all brooding scowl and knotted brow. And yet, this cypher-like quality to Cage’s performance works perfectly. Clearly Joe doesn’t let anyone get too close – the authentic Joe is hidden behind a carefully constructed mask of masculinity. Moreover, this plants a seed of (unintentional?) deconstruction within the performance. The shitty villains of the film seem to be play-acting their masculinity and they are no good at it. Joe’s main antagonist is a leering hyper-aggressive pervert called Willie (hah!) who is always spoiling for a fight. However, when push literally comes to shove, not only is he a rubbish brawler easily bested by a 15-year-old boy, but his expression of masculinity comes across as weirdly inauthentic, desperate. Almost every time he pops up in a scene he asserts with laughable grandiosity “I went through a windshield and I don’t give a fuck!” It fails to impress.
Likewise, old man Wade mostly beats up his young son and succeeds only in killing a poor, destitute homeless man, who can offer no resistance to his assault. It is not that he is all bark and no bite, but that his bite is solely directed at those much weaker than himself. He is a bully and his attempt at body-popping break-dancing moves also exposes him as dangerously uncool. As Stella Papamichael writes in her review for Digital Spy:
“Violence is offered as an integral part of masculine identity. Joe and Gary both share the philosophy that sometimes a man’s gotta do… Wade is an example of where it is completely unnecessary and sometimes downright evil (eventually spiralling into a shocking scene from leftfield) while another cowardly loudmouth (Ronnie Gene Blevins) tries to up his currency in town by playing the hard man.”
So, where does this leave Cage’s masculinity, so triumphant and righteous in Con Air? On the bar-room floor. Joe is a man gone to seed, whose masculinity has been humbled, who has had to learn how to channel his manly anger. There is a genuine pathos to Joe’s job as a man who poisons trees, striking blows with a hammer against the strong, weary forest. The trees, firm and irresolute, are the pinnacle of phallic masculine – yet how easily are they poisoned, how sad and old they look. It is difficult to say whether Joe is jealous of the trees, or whether he senses in them kindred spirits to match his own. Notably, while both Joe and the resilient young Gary are able to poison the trees (and do so with serious vigour, energy and violence) nasty old Wade is badly able to raise a hand against them. He strikes his son instead.
Joe is given to the moody brooding, that has a certain existentialist quality, that could be read either as the defeated wisdom of manly experience, or the nihilistic angst of a petulant teenager. Replying to the soothing susurrus of a lover he says, with a frustrated weariness, “I like you too, but what’s the point in any of it?” And yet there are moments in which happiness catches him off-guard, against his better judgement. The most playful, Cageiest sequence in the film involves Joe and Gary doing a bit of father-son bonding, drinking and driving together as buddies, off in pursuit of Joe’s loyal bulldog (who, like Joe, is seemingly ferocious but with a heart of gold). This gives Cage room for some goofy improvisation and that winsome, toothy smile of his breaks through. He’s like the hero from a Johnny Cash song, beaten down but possessed of spirited dark humour in spite of it all. My favourite part of this manly buddy-bonding sequence was when Joe shows Gary how to make ‘the pain face’. This involves smiling, but allowing the pain to show through underneath. You give a big grin but keep the pain in the eyes. It was like a little acting lesson from Cage, teaching the younger actor, the rather brilliant Tye Kayle Sheridan, one of the tricks of the trade. The manufacture of the synthetic mask of manly pain. I sometimes like making this face myself! Give it a go sometime!
Cage looks old (although not creepy or smarmy) in Joe. He is in his 50s now – getting on. Although it would be absurd for me to say that Nicolas Cage is my cinematic father, with Birdy (1984) he heralded me into the world of adult films. I was only 13 or 14 at the time, younger than the character of Gary. In the Coens’ Raising Arisona from 1987 Cage had a Thrush Muffler bird tattoo, signifying his speed, youth and cartoony acting style. In Joe, Cage has the tattoo of a wildcat, faded and grown over with white hair.