The Tao of Nicolas Cage: ‘Joe’

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A bearded Cage has a troubled past but a heart of gold.

“Well, its not that big a deal. A lot of dogs look like cows”

We’re now about a week removed from the 89th Academy Awards and we’ve had plenty of time to digest what exactly went down. The focus of course has been on the blunder the show ended on and rightfully so. In the previous 88 years we’ve never seen anything quite like what we saw this year. Despite all the craziness I think it’s safe to say most people would agree that once the dust settled the Best Picture Oscar went home with the right movie.

While the Academy may have gotten the Best Picture right a number of the other award recipients are up for debate. This is nothing new or special to this year’s ceremony of course. Every year someone gets upset because so and so didn’t win or even worse, so and so wasn’t even nominated. This got me to thinking about Nicolas Cage and his history with Hollywood’s most prestigious night.

Up to this point Cage has only been nominated for two Oscars, both being for Best Actor in a Leading Role and in 1996 he took home the trophy for Leaving Las Vegas. The fact that he only has two nominations is in a word bullshit. We’re talking about the world’s greatest living actor here, people! He should be crushed with Oscars at this point. I’m not here to complain about all the Oscars he hasn’t won though, but I am going to complain about what I think is his greatest snub, or at the very least his most recent snub. I’m talking about his role in David Gordon Green’s Joe.

Cage stars as the titular Joe, a foreman for a tree-poisoning business in some small, backwoods town in Texas. He’s a good foreman too. He treats his workers right, never making them work in the rain but still paying them for a full day. If he works them to dinner time they get time and a half and he buys them dinner. He respects his employees and they respect him.

We don’t get a lot of information about Joe at the start but we can tell he’s battled some demons. He spends a great deal of his free time at the local whore house and a dive bar. At one point someone pulls up and shoots him in the chest and instead of going to the hospital he takes care of the wound himself. Treating your own bullet wounds is always a surefire sign of a troubled past.

Joe also seems to have some issues with the police but being that he lives in a small town they all know him very well. The town sheriff even seems to like him. Despite this Joe can’t seem to stay out of trouble. I kind of like to think of Joe as a third cousin to Luke and Bo Duke but Joe happens to live in a grim world as opposed to one full of fun and hijinks.

Then there’s 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary has seen more in his short 15 years than anyone should have to see in their entire lives. His dad Wade (Gary Poulter) is a mean ole drunk that doesn’t care about anything but his booze. Wade doesn’t have a job and he has no desire to work. Gary is constantly lecturing his father, trying desperately getting to take some responsibility for his life.

Gary lives in a condemned house with Wade, his mother and his younger sister Dorothy. You get the sense that Gary’s mother has been a victim of domestic violence for a number of years and at this point she just doesn’t care. She gave up years ago and spends her days wasting away, smoking cigarettes on the front porch. Dorothy stopped talking sometime back. No one knows why exactly but it’s pretty easy to connect the dots.

Knowing his father will never do so Gary heads out to look for a job. On his search Gary comes across Joe and his men clearing out some trees. Joe gives Gary 45 seconds to tell sell himself and Gary quickly rattles off a fairly lengthy work history for a 15-year-old. Impressed, Joe hires Gary on the spot.

Joe’s team quickly takes to Gary as they teach him all the different aspects of their job. They look at Gary as an equal and make it clear that they won’t take it easy on him because his age and they expect him to carry his weight. They treat Gary with respect and you can tell it’s something he’s not familiar with.

This scene of Gary learning on the job exemplifies the skill Green has as a filmmaker. This entire scene consists of trees being poisoned and chopped down and yet it’s the sweetest, most endearing moment of the entire film. It may seem trivial but in this moment Gary is happy and prideful, possibly for the first time ever.

Joe’s impressed by Gary’s work ethic and tells him to come back on Monday with his dad and he’ll put them both to work. It takes some effort but Gary does manage to convince Wade to go to work with him. Unfortunately things don’t go so well with Wade and it costs Gary his job. Wade is lazy, he’s a complainer and he doesn’t want to work. He just wants to stand around and smoke cigarettes. Joe takes Gary and Wade home and tells them their services are no longer needed. This is when Joe gets a first hand look at the life Gary lives.

Joe decides to take Gary under his wing. He’ll do anything to prevent Gary from going down a path similar to his own. The two form an unbreakable bond as Joe teaches Gary how to drive, gives him a beer and talks to him about all the women he’s going to sleep with when he gets older. Joe’s techniques aren’t anything you’d find in a parenting book but he means well.

Joe sort of morphs into two different movies. It’s a coming of a age story for Gary and a tale of redemption for Joe. And the entire thing is nearly perfect.

This is one of the most “down south” movies you’ll ever see too. It’s like watching a Drive-By Truckers song come to life.

The film premiered at the 2013 Venice Film Festival and then in April on 2014 it opened to very little fanfare in the US. The release was extremely limited, never appearing in more than 48 theaters at a time, and as a result it didn’t pull in a whole lot of cash.

A limited release in April isn’t likely going to garner much Oscar acclaim which I get. What I don’t understand is why this masterpiece was dumped off in April, essentially being tossed out to die. Put Joe out in December and give it the proper marketing and I think this gets some Oscar buzz.

A lot of what makes Joe work is in the lack of details readily available. It’s not that things happen that don’t makes sense, but it’s the choice Green makes to just drop the audience into the lives of these characters and let us get caught up to speed by watching. There’s no time nor is there any need to go and give a backstory on everyone and everything. The performances are so good that they allow those details to be revealed with a much more subtle approach.

The performance from Cage is one of the best of his career and easily his best in the last 10 years. It’s the little things he does throughout that bring something extra to the character. In one scene Joe is driving his brand-new truck he just purchased when he comes to a red light. While waiting for the light to change a jeep pulls up along side him with a man driving and a woman in the passenger’s seat. He looks over at the woman and rolls his window down just enough so that his eyes are peering out over the top. She looks back at Joe and slightly smiles. He rolls his window up and drives off.

Nothing is said about the woman in that jeep. Not a single line of dialogue is uttered in or about that moment but I instantly thought, “oh that’s his ex-wife.” There’s something about the way they look at one another that you know they have some type of history, some type of relationship. On the Blu-ray special features it’s confirmed that the woman is indeed his ex-wife. In the original script she was in more scenes, but Green cut them and opted to go with just this scene with no dialogue. It was a wonderful choice.

I wish Joe would have received more recognition upon its initial release because I do believe the film was worthy of at least a couple Oscar nods. I don’t think it would have beaten any of the winners from 2014 but I think it was better than some of the nominations. Would Cage have toppled Eddie Redmayne in the Best Actor category? Not likely. I do, however, think Cage was more deserving of a nomination than Bradley Cooper was that year.

The Oscar piece is whatever though. Yeah I think it would be cool if Cage had more nominations and awards under his belt, but that’s not a huge deal. What I really want is people to appreciate Joe because it is a great Cage movie.

I’ve written multiple times here at FSR that I think Cage still makes good movies on a pretty regular basis. Yes, there’s some bad ones mixed in but that’s always been the case. The general consensus is that Cage hasn’t made a good movie in 15–20 years. People are always telling me, “I used to like Nic Cage,” or “Nic Cage used to be a serious actor.” People view him as a joke that just makes ridiculous DTV fare. But I would bet good money that people that think that way and say those things have never seen Joe. Here’s a movie from just four years ago that is serious and emotional. Joe is heartbreaking and intense while still being beautiful and uplifting. And the entire product is carried by a riveting and strong performance from Nicolas Cage.

We can’t go back and retroactively give Joe some Oscar love and that’s okay. But we can shed more light on this film and make sure more people see it. So here’s what I’m saying – if you’re one of those people that thinks Cage hasn’t made a good movie in the last two decades, give Joe a watch. You might not like it and that’s totally fine, movies are subjective. But I guarantee you that there’s no way you can watch Joe and walk away saying “there’s a washed up actor that no longer has it.”

My name is Chris Coffel and I usually write about Nicolas Cage. When I'm not writing about Nicolas Cage I'm usually thinking about writing about Nicolas Cage.