Joe stars Nicolas Cage as the titular character, an ex-con who runs a semi-legitimate business in rural America, a place filled with vast woods, decaying shacks and shady characters. Right from the start it’s clear that this location is one of the movie’s main characters, a setting that attracts the not so fortunate and wears them down bit by bit. What’s also immediately apparent is that Nicolas Cage delivers one of the best performances he’s ever done: he portrays a man who’s always fighting against the anger that sits right beneath his skin, a man looking for redemption, for a way out of the routine of his not so perfect life. Cage is subdued throughout, his acting incredibly nuanced, building in intensity as the film goes on, which does not only make his character incredibly mesmerizing to watch, but, as the title suggests, is also the main draw to watch this film.
Joe himself is an interesting and very realistic character, but essentially all the film’s people seem to be plucked from some form of quite hellish real life and dropped into this movie’s environment. Most of the men and women the film presents us with have problems with liquor, violence, or each other, are either abusers or being abused in one way or the other. It makes Joe very heavy on atmosphere, a depressing watch because the picture it paints of places like these isn’t pretty. The only “good” character in the film is Gary, a boy who’s fifteen years old and who applies for a job with Joe’s crew because he needs to make some money. Not for himself, but for his entire family: his abusive drunk of a dad can’t even support himself, let alone his wife, son and daughter. The bond Gary and Joe develop is central to the story’s core, and it’s the reason for the few moments of laughter or positivity. Tye Sheridan delivers another fine performance, one that isn’t incredibly far removed from his turn in Mud, a movie that dealt with some of the same subject matter but in a much lighter manner.
Where Mud made you believe its characters could find a happy ending, Joe‘s darkness is so all-encompassing, so present in all these scenes with broken people, that you’re wondering just how bad things will get in the end. And while the movie delivers a fitting conclusion to its story, there’s still a sense that very little progress has been made, which isn’t a flaw but just one more way to drive it’s feel-bad message home. What the movie makes you feel is hope for its characters, but it’s hope against better judgment, wishful thinking in light of all the misery the film keeps showing. It leaves you feeling unsatisfied, but that’s exactly what it sets out to do. In that regard Joe is much more like Winter’s Bone, another quality film that was quite unsettling because of the amount of poverty and gloom that was felt throughout.
Joe is a solid but hard watch. If you want to see Cage in top form though, this is where it’s at. 7/10