I was absolutely infuriated by David Gordon Green’s latest film, Joe, starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. The film exhibits significant lapses in the quality of the storytelling and, perhaps more importantly, a shockingly distasteful treatment of certain parts of its plot, including latent racism against its (few and minor) black characters. It’s a movie that positively wastes a good performance and a half from its leads, and is a tone deaf, unassured mess of a film that’s all the more maddening because it actually feels on point for most of the first hour.
Let’s start with a little background plot: Sheridan plays Gary, the hardworking son of a drunken and abusive father who tries his best to look out for his functionally nonexistent mother and sister. The family lives in squalor, drifting from small town to small town and scrounging through the garbage for meals as often as not. Cage meanwhile plays Joe, the hard living owner of a slightly less than legal business which poisons trees so that the area can be bulldozed and replanted with more economically viable flora. Gary happens upon Joe’s crew one day, and Joe hires him on as a worker. From there the plot progresses with Joe increasingly serving as Gary’s de-facto father. There’s also some business of another man in town, Willie, who has beef with both Gary and Joe. Gary beat up Willie for disrespecting his family and his sister in particular; Willie has an unexplained sexual obsession with Gary’s sister despite the fact that he’s never seen her before and she’s younger than Gary’s 15 years. Willie’s issues with Joe are undefined, but we’re introduced to their quarrel by Willie ambushing and shooting Joe.
And with that, we can begin diving onto the issues. Let’s start with the big ones.
This film is implicitly racist. Joe, the white man, oversees an entirely black work crew (prior to Gary’s joining). He works beside them from time to time, but he also owns all the equipment, transports all workers to the work site, and is the kind “massa” all the workers look up to and receive their food and pay from. He doles out the benevolence as he sees fit in his singular white wisdom. It’s a white man’s ret-conning of the slave narrative into a more palatable form. There’s even a particular black worker who comes and goes intermittently, with Joe always making a point to welcome him back to work, a reminder of the lazy stereotype. There’s an implication that the character sells drugs when he’s not working for Joe, the only character in the entire movie who partakes of anything but the broadly acceptable vices of tobacco and alcohol. For the hardworking Gary, he is able to quickly learn from the black men around him, rising into Joe’s good graces. Yes, the story centers on their relationship, but the implication is that Gary has surpassed his black coworkers, not that he is working to achieve the same proficiency they have developed over an extended period of time.
Around town, there are (with one exception) never any black people around. At a general store Joe frequents, the owner is white. At a brothel the film visits more than once, all the women are white. The villain is white, but his face is scarred, a visible reminder that he’s an impure and evil example, a white man who is clearly the exception to the kind and just examples of Joe and Gary. And I don’t mean to suggest that their characters treat their black employees/coworkers unfairly, but the structure of it is blatantly wrong. The only time we do see another black man, he’s a drunk who is even more physically impaired than Gary’s raging alcoholic of a father – and then he is brutally beaten and killed by Gary’s father. The film lingers on the excessive violence, and not in a way that condemns the reaction, but rather one that shows it in all its dominating detail – a lynching if I every saw one, and at the end of it Gary’s father kisses the dead nigger, as though he has freed him from the torment of his life. Oh, and here’s the real kicker: the only time a black man is ever shown to have dominance over a white man is in the brief period that Gary’s father also works for Joe. The black foreman, Joe’s second-in-command, gets onto Gary’s father for slacking off all day. Rather than exhibiting command over the situation, the foreman gets into a yelling match with Gary’s father that positions this very capable worker as an equal with a drunk.
Next, let’s talk about how a deadly dogfight is played for laughs. At the brothel Joe frequents is a dog that he cannot stand. Apparently he’s been bit some number of times before. At a moment of high tension he goes to the brothel to unwind, finds the dog, drives home to fetch his own hound – which until then has been characterized as perfectly friendly despite a mean sounding bark – returns to the brothel and turns it loose. The dog, suddenly possessed with bloodlust, charges into the house to take on the evil dog so Joe can go upstairs and get a blowjob in peace, which is apparently supposed to be funny. When he comes back down, the evil dog is dead, and Joe’s dog, smeared with the blood of its victim, is portrayed heroically.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I found Joe to be utterly tone deaf, and this dogfight scene is a perfect example. The movie positions itself as a wholly serious picture as opposed to, say, a Tarantino picture like Django Unchained. Graphic violence against other human beings is portrayed as amusing in Django, but it is both consistent with the outlandish tone of the film and shown in order to make the audience think about the fact that they just laughed at someone getting mercilessly beaten or killed. (Well, some of the movie does this effectively, but we are not here to debate the exact location of lines which Django Unchained did or did not cross.) Joe teaches us to take the seriousness of a dog killing another dog with the somberness of reality but disregards its own lessons at a whim. It’s actually the immediate lead up to this dogfight that is the first departure from this. A short time later, there’s an extended comic scene with a slightly drunken Gary and Joe driving all around town. But again, the first hour of the movie instructed us to take it seriously, so there’s little comedic about a 15-year-old or a 48-year old man driving drunk.
This first hour is where all the setup for Joe’s and Gary’s characters is done, and it’s also where we see them begin to interact. Really, despite a rough edge here and there (particularly scenes which are narrative outliers, never to be revisited) and the racial problems that were already beginning to surface, the first hour of the film is pretty good. Sheridan is very capable as Gary, showcasing both the hard edge of adulthood forced upon him and the boyishness that emerges when that weight is temporarily lifted. The situations he’s asked to act out deteriorate as the film continues, but his performance does not. The real shocker though is Cage, who is pitch perfect as Joe through the first half of the movie. He’s a brooding, powerful figure who obviously has lots of vices and a strong violence that has gotten him in trouble in the past, but that he’s not gotten in line. He’s got his bad habits, but he’s meticulous and responsible.
Then the Hulk comes out, and it’s not nearly as fun as it was in The Avengers. Two or three times in the film, something causes Joe to lose his cool, and then for some reason all bets are off. He becomes possessed of this comic-book style rage that fuels him to behave completely irrationally. Not to harp on the point, but the movie wants us to believe this is the real world. There is no switch that gets flipped from Bruce Banner to “Hulk smash!” in real life. But there is one in Joe’s character, and it’s from the first of these occurrences that Cage devolves into his campy self. The movie stops working because it loses all tonal grounding. It’s not that Joe can’t be allowed sudden and ruthless violence when a situation calls for it, but he can’t fly into a blind rage that causes him to assault cops at the slightest provocation.
I’m running way long at this point and I haven’t even had time to go into several of the more central plot and character issues, so here’s the hot list. There’s a girlfriend character, for example, who spends most of the movie staying with Joe only to disappear through the last third. Then there’s the previously mentioned scarred villain who shows up barely at all and isn’t connected to the main narrative of Joe, Gary, and Gary’s father, but somehow is the prime player in the climax of the film. And let’s not forget Gary’s sister and mother who don’t even speak during the movie. They could have been replaced by bits of cardboard and literally nothing would have been lost. Gary cites not leaving his sister, particularly, as a reason he doesn’t emancipate himself from his father’s abusive household, but the film spends zero time developing any understanding of their relationship. Character development is also at a premium with Gary’s father, who is defined by nothing else but “cruel drunk.”
The Verdict: 1 out of 5
I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing of merit that went into this film. Tye Sheridan clearly showed up ready to work, as did Nicolas Cage for at least part of the time. There are so many directorial missteps that the failure to carry that performance through the entire film might be attributed to David Gordon Green as much as Cage. Green has shown himself plenty capable in the past, but this feels like a very serious misfire, one that could blow up in his face. There are a bunch of narrative issues which come to light, especially, in the second half of the film, and the movie is a tonal mess, but the bigger problem is that this film just isn’t thinking about the way it’s presenting certain elements of its story. The result is a violent, cruel movie that wants us to laugh at its violence, but is moreover a thoroughly racist film that can feel like a 19th century rationalization of slavery.