"You pretend to be asleep, but I know you'd cry if I said the wrong thing."
Joe is a powerful and emotional drama that despite being slow grips you thanks to an intense realism and some excellent performances. Many have compared this to last year's MUD perhaps because teenager Tye Sheridan is in both films and they happen to take place in southern America dealing with some trashy characters. I really felt this film was more similar to Jennifer Lawrence's Winter's Bone in mood and tone, since MUD had an underlying romantic theme which this film lacks and you have two young characters that have to face great obstacles in order to sustain their families. With his performance in Joe, Tye Sheridan, has acquired quite an impressive resume despite his young age adding this performance to his work in MUD and The Tree of Life. As the title suggests however, the film benefits from a great lead performance from Cage who plays Joe, a man with a troubled past who gets a chance at redemption when he meets this young kid and becomes a sort of role model for him. This is one of Nicolas Cage's top 5 performances and a return to form for the actor that I grew up loving in the 90's. Perhaps my favorite performance in the film comes from newcomer, Gary Poulter, who plays the abusive alcoholic father. I can't think of a more horrifying villain than the character he portrays in Joe. Director, David Gordon Green, has also had a return to form after his disappointing turns in the comedies The Sitter and Your Highness. He is a very versatile director who received a lot of critical acclaim from his early small indies, George Washington and All the Real Girls, and then he also had success with his first stoner comedy, Pineapple Express. You would never imagine Joe was directed by the same person considering this is such a dark emotional drama.
Joe takes place in the wild South lands of Mississippi where we meet Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con and heavy drinker who is trying to lay low working as a lumberjack. His life takes a turn when he meets a young 15 year old named Gary (Tye Sheridan) who comes to him looking for a job. Gary is the oldest son of a homeless family who suffers abuse from his alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Wade spends all the money in booze and beats Gary on a regular basis. Joe's protective instincts come to play when he takes a liking for Joe who he tries to help. Despite having a lot of friends in the small local town, Joe also has made some enemies due to his heavy drinking and constant trouble with the law, and despite how much he tries to restrain himself from hurting others, seeing Gary being constantly abused awakens his anger towards his abusive father.
The characters in this film have a lot of depth and the realism with which they are portrayed by the actors is shocking at times. Sheridan gives a similar performance as that of Lawrence in Winter's Bone, Nicolas Cage is outstanding as well in his restrained role, and Poulter is so terrifying that he makes everyone's father look like a saint. The film has a haunting atmosphere and the drama is so rich that it is hard to remain emotionally detached to the story. It is a powerful and honest drama, one of the best from 2014. It's one of those rare emotional character studies that doesn't feel manipulative and never hits a false note. Cage reminds us why he was such a success in the past and I'm glad to see him back in form after a terrible batch of films.