dat beard. image courtesy of Studio System News
I had the privilege of seeing David Gordon Green’s Joe yesterday afternoon, and it did not disappoint. A key thing about me: I am a die-hard, completely un-ironic Nicolas Cage fan. Ever since I first saw him in the Coen brothers’ masterpiece Raising Arizona, I’ve been completely fascinated by him. Cage makes even the most abysmal movies an actual delight to watch, he’s that talented and dedicated. The guy never phones it in, and takes every role seriously no matter how ridiculous – I’m looking at you, Season of the Witch. And hey, I’m sure The Wicker Man would have been nowhere near as raucously entertaining were it not for his performance.
Joe gives Cage the chance to do something I haven’t seen him do in a long time, maybe since Adaptation at least; strip it way down to bare emotions and subtle nuances. As a character, we can immediately tell that Joe has a dark past; the way he moves, the way he looks at people. Though he works hard, he drinks excessively, gambles, and frequents an anxiety-inducingly filthy whorehouse. Though he has a clear no-bullshit persona, he almost immediately establishes a rapport with Gary (Tye Sheridan), the new kid in town looking for work. Almost as if Joe sees an opportunity to be the father he never could be and guide this kid down a better path than his own, Joe builds a relationship with Gary.
Watching Cage and Sheridan play off one another is captivating; Sheridan is a gifted actor, wise beyond his years. Gary comes from a horrific broken home with an absolute subhuman wretch for a father, drugged out mother and mute sister in tow. They’ve “moved” into a condemned house by simply taking the boards off the windows and doors and squatting; basically, Gary lives in a nightmare with an absolute hellscape to call home. His father frequently beats the holy hell out of him in drunken rages, takes his money, and verbally degrades him. I have never loathed a character so much, so abruptly in a movie before, but Wade is a truly vile man. Gary just wants to help his mom and sister out of that hell, and Wade tries to cut him down at every pass so he can blow that hard-earned cash on a bottle of Night Train.
Then, I started to wonder about the actor behind Wade – Gary Poulter. Earlier today, Nick and I were talking about how Gary Poulter’s performance was so well lived-in and authentic. He was this completely believable drunk mess/homeless person, he had some city miles on him for sure. This was some next-level method acting, as he seemed almost too authentic. I was wondering what he looked like as a “normal” person, and what else he had been in, since he was so utterly fantastic. Turns out Green took a massive risk when he hired Poulter for the flick, because Poulter was a real-life homeless man and severely mentally ill alcoholic. Green stuck to his guns. Though Wade is an intrinsically cruel man, Poulter’s performance really resonates. It’s completely jarring, a once in a lifetime rendition. Unfortunately, the film made noise in the media around September 2013 when Poulter was found dead, and I still can’t believe it now. Yikes. You wonder and hope this role might have turned things around for him, but we’ll never know. It’s sad to think that if this character had been portrayed by, say, Nick Nolte or another well-known older actor, they would likely be nominated for an Academy Award. Something to think about for sure.
The atmosphere in this movie is thick and tangible. You are catapulted straight into this dismal world, where Gary lends just that tiny bit of light; he gives Joe a positive raison d’être. There’s a ton of grittiness and frighteningly real violence with real depth of character; not an easy thing to balance, for sure.
So. David Gordon Green, consider yourself forgiven for Your Highness.