Joe (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Joe (2014)

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A quiet man with a reserve of anger is trying to live a simple life in his struggling working class neighborhood in the American South.  He can't keep to himself long as his simple existence is shaken by the violent return of someone he hurt, the insistence of an oppressive police force that can't stop harassing him, and a tough kid with sad eyes who looks to him for guidance and work.  Joe is David Gordon Green's ninth feature-film, and is adapted from Larry Brown's novel of the same name.

Looking out for the kidThe working class has all but disappeared from the big screen.  There are no stiffs with blue-collar jobs punching in and out, no union bars where people vent last work frustration with a shot, and no discussion about where all of them of have gone.  Instead, most of the theaters are filled with characters displaying fantastic powers, or comedies where people with privileged backgrounds and swank apartments deal with their interpersonal frustrations.  I don't point this out as a knock to any of the great films those scenarios have given us (Man of Steel and Francis Ha, for starters), but it helps explain how the working class looks when it ekes into a film.

They're angry, isolated, and plagued by forces that they neither understand nor control - be they institutional or natural.  The union is gone, the police aren't going to help their disputes, and companies have long stopped providing any sort of help.  Joe (Nicolas Cage) is one of the lost ones who has been lucky enough to band together with others and make a support net for themselves.  His example serves both as a way to rebuild the crippled working class for the next generation, and how the system continues to give nothing but trouble for people like Joe who just want to work hard and stay out of trouble.

All of this is guided by David Gordon Green, a director whose oeuvre has two distinct phases; the first a series of dreamy, pained, and beautifully sketched out portraits of people in decaying industrial towns, the second a collection of decent to painful high-concept stoner comedies.  I love the first phase, and am bewildered if occasionally amused by the second, and Joe, Green's ninth feature-film, is a weary return to those decayed spaces that he got his start in.  Joe isn't a return to form so much as an older man looking at what he grew up with and wondering how to make it better without neglecting the pain that comes with transformation.  Joe might not be able to change, but he can at least make things a bit better for those following him.

Tye Sheridan has an intense intelligence and rugged charm that has made him the centerpiece of two films about decaying masculinity and the working class.

Tye Sheridan has an intense intelligence and rugged charm that has made him the centerpiece of two films about decaying masculinity and the working class.

Green shows how guarded and insular the working class has become with some of the densest settings of his career.  Looking at the exteriors, every building in Joe's town is on the verge of falling into pieces.  Outside of their designated zones they are prey to both the cops, who are little good at protecting them, and the criminals who grew up with some of those officers and have free rein.  But these buildings contain their own worlds inside.  The most breathtaking occurs right off when Joe and his crew make a stop to the general store which looks to contain an entire chain-realty store inside of its 20 X 20 frame.  Then there's Joe's house, filled with images of a hunter's life that isn't possible on the outside now that all the game has fled.  Or the whorehouse, doing its best to cram a red-light district into a few rooms - give or take a barking dog that kills the mood.

These lush interiors, and their decayed exteriors, highlight just how much the working class has been driven into itself and forced to depend on the scarce illusions one another is able to provide to stay alive.  Only when the laborers are required to work outside is the area safe for them to live.  The unspoken motto of Joe's town seems to be, "Get out when we need you, but you better not leave your safe zones in the meantime."  Joe isn't even safe in these spaces anymore, as the one time he crossed the police and their criminal friends comes back to torment him repeatedly.

But the structure of Joe, owing to a screenplay from Gary Hawkins that is more evocative than expository, allows room to both find the cause and solution to these problems.  Joe uses his problems with societies various guards to anchor the world, but also looks at the generation previous to him, through the old drunk Wade (Gary Poulter), and the one after, through the drunk's sad son Gary (Tye Sheridan).  All three of the performances from these men carry an incredible amount of pain and all-too explosive willingness to solve their problems through violence.  What looks like a long-awaited domestic conversation in the beginning where the drunk is told by his son to confront his problems turns into an excuse for the older generation to beat the younger one into submission.

The story of Gary and his two fathers serves as a deft examination of the way the mistakes the working class made in giving away its power and the sins of the system revisited on those not strong enough to change it.

The story of Gary and his two fathers serves as a deft examination of the way the mistakes the working class made in giving away its power and the sins of the system revisited on those not strong enough to change it.

This physical theme introduces another troubling element of American life that Joe could have ignored but didn't - the persistence of racial violence and inequality between races.  In slight shifts of tone and dialogue we see how Wade's generation ruled through violence and pissed their power away through substance abuse, Joe's generation seems amiable but still positions themselves above their black coworkers, and Gary's generation has the potential to recognize everyone as equals not only by voice but by action - exemplified in a quiet shot where Gary moves among Joe's black employees and not pushing them out of the way or invading their space.

Joe also doesn't shy away from the hard solution to this problem of inequality both between races and the imbalance of power between the working class and the system repressing it.  When the final confrontation between all three generations comes to a head it reinforces that the only way to change the system is through a total shakedown of the structure that persists.  This is a brave challenge for all the performers, and even though Cage is the veteran, the shambling masculinity through violence of Gary Poulter and the wounded strength of Tye Sheridan are what really drives the film forward.  Sheridan, in particular, is set for a brilliant career between this and his work in Mud, both perfecting a southern weariness and intelligence well beyond his adolescent years.

He plays characters that grew up in an environment that exists only to bring them to age then work them to death.  This examination of the dying working class is not unique to Joe, but it is the first to suggest a solution.  Whether we have the strength to pull the trigger or not is a separate problem.  If not, we can always force the working class to retreat into ever smaller boxes.  After all, they've lost so much, what's a few feet more?

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Tail - JoeJoe (2014)

Directed by David Gordon Green.
Screenplay written by Gary Hawkins.
Starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan.

Posted by Andrew

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