Nicholas Cage is a bit of an oddity in the acting world. He started out as a serious actor and somehow ended up getting cast in cheesy action films where he just overacts like there’s no tomorrow, and suddenly he’s a quirky nutball who can’t cut past the tape his action film persona confines him to. Yet lo and behold, we get Joe, a serious drama starring Nicholas Cage. And he’s still got the acting chops, given that he has a good director to work with. And Joe is well directed. It is a good example of novelistic storytelling brought to the big screen, combining literary motifs with cinematic aesthetics to make a damn good tale of finding a way to do some good when all you’ve ever known is how to do wrong.
Cage takes on the role of Joe, an ex-convict who contracts some guys to cut down trees during the day, and spends his nights by himself. He drinks, smokes, and resorts to hookers, but not really because he gets satisfaction out of any of them, and not to abuse himself into a stupor. No, this is self-medication. Joe is a violent man, and he tries desperately not to be. Enter a 15 year old boy named Gary, a drifter living with his family in a condemned house. Gary wants to find work for him and his father, and though Gary is a hard worker, his father is a drunk intent only on being lazy, blaming everybody else for his shortcomings, and doing whatever it takes for his next drink. Joe sees this play out, and sees a kindred spirit in the kid, acting as a friend where the kid has none. The events that follow are subtly dramatic and at times shocking, and seeing Joe watch aspects of himself be reflected in both Gary and his father is something to behold.
The performances in this film are fantastic demonstrations of believably human characters acting in realistic ways while still acting as thematic archetypes to portray a greater message. Cage’s subdued dramatic tones are usually a result of bored underacting in a role he clearly doesn’t care about, but that’s not what’s going on here. Joe is a character that allows Cage to brood and sulk without having to be bored with it, because the script shows there’s a lot more going on with Joe than any single line of dialogue can demonstrate. There’s depth to this character, and Cage knows how to run with it. The supporting cast does a great job of providing on-screen chemistry for his performance, but Cage is really the one who steals the show.
Unfortunately, the film is marred by some serious pacing issues in the first half. It takes a whole forty minutes to establish the main conflict of the film, and I think enough background information and characterization could have been accomplished in half the time. Much focus is put on Joe’s job and Gary’s home situation, but it dwells on these things for too long when it has already made its desired points. I was frankly quite bored at first and didn’t quite see where the film was going, and if I weren’t committed to writing these reviews, I might have turned off the movie before it got past the establishment and into the actually interesting plot.
However, when you get right down to it, Joe is still a pretty good movie. It has a high bar of admission with some boring establishment taking up way more of the film than it has any right to, but once you get past that there’s a good film just waiting to be appreciated. The story is solid and the performances are magnificent, particularly Cage’s. Give this one a look if you see it around.
What’s your favorite Nicholas Cage movie? Let me know in the comments below.