TIFF 2013 – He’s Got a Lot of Scars, But All the Others Are Dead: David Gordon Green’s JOE

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David Gordon Green is having one hell of a year. Once known for his indie dramas, the versatile actor was eventually snatched up by Hollywood when he developed a relationship with what can now be affectionately referred to as the THIS IS THE END crowd: Danny McBride, James Franco, Jonah Hill and the like. For the last five or so years, he’s been hard at work directing films like PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS and an assortment of episodes for EASTBOUND & DOWN.

But over the past few months, Green has returned to his roots with a pair of exceptional – and exceptionally quiet – films set in his native Texas. The first, PRINCE AVALANCHE, was a delightfully low-key buddy-comedy starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. Now, he follows that picture up with the perfect companion piece: JOE, starring Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan. Both films take place in the rural south, and offer complimentary perspectives on contemporary masculinity and heteronormativity, even as they come at them from opposing sides.

In PRINCE AVALANCHE, we never leave the woods where our heroes live and work. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation, often times even from one another. But this isolation is less an oppressive force than it is a liberating one: a man alone is not something to be feared, but something to be (occasionally) revered and enjoyed for its rare quality. JOE is the polar opposite of this philosophy. If AVALANCHE represents the side of the coin that is Man Alone, then certainly JOE represents Man Together: a pointed look at contemporary society and how men’s roles have shifted somewhat since the frontier days.

Because at its core, JOE is practically a modern Western, with Nicolas Cage taking the role of the beaten down sheriff. In his most impressive monologue in the film, Cage waxes nostalgic about the good ol’ days: “There’s no frontier anymore”, he laments, providing the thesis for the film. Back in the old days, a man and his pistol were all the protection a family needed. Nowadays, things are not so simple. Junkyard dogs are more common than honor and grit, and justice seems to turn a blind eye towards the big problems in favor of hunting down petty crimes. Cage’s Joe makes his stance on the subject abundantly clear: nobody is going to take personal justice out of his own hands and put it into the hands of others.

The titular character – played admirably by Cage – is a man of another time. He takes the law into his own hands, both punitively and as a figure of authority. But unlike a show like JUSTIFIED, where the rough-and-tumble, out-of-time sheriff who lives by the old code finds himself as a fish out of water in contemporary society, Joe is not alone in his thinking. Green takes great pains to show that the majority of this rural area in which Joe lives goes by his thinking. There are standoffs in bars, shootouts are an everyday occurrence and brothels are a frequent hangout spot. It is the frontier, for all intents and purposes – a small, isolated community which never outgrew its frontier days. And yet, these aren’t the old days; such a lifestyle is not sustainable. Joe has zero tolerance for police and any authority other than his own. According to him, all they do is get in the way of him doing what needs to be done. They get in the way of him being the man that he seems to think he should be – the one who protects the people close to him (including himself) by any means necessary. And this type of thinking is just not something that can be perpetually sustained in today’s society, no matter how frontier-esque it may appear.

And so we’re treated to a wide variety of Western semiotics and good-dog / bad-dog metaphors: “That dog’s a good dog”, Joe explains when young Gary (Sheridan) seems put off by the bulldog he keeps under his porch. (Hint: he’s not talking about the dog.) Later, after the dog has run away and Joe and Gary have found him by the side of the road, the kid notices that the dog is covered in scars – presumably from all the times Joe has used him to take down what he considers to be “bad dogs”. “He’s got a lot of scars,” says Gary. “Yeah, but all the others is dead,” responds Joe. (Hint two: he’s still not talking about the dog.)

At the core of the film is the relationship between Joe and Gary. Joe, who sees himself as a position of authority, comes to find himself in a paternal position, as well. Despite his girlfriend’s attempts to push him into domesticity, it takes this young boy to show Joe that being an authoritative figure, the one who takes care of people, means you have to have people to take care of. And fifteen-year-old Gary, who is the sole breadwinner of his family because of his drunken and abusive father, is a hard worker and a good dog. So Joe takes him under his wing, and will go to the ends of the earth, justice be damned, to protect him.

Green films the movie with an ambient, free-flowing kind of style, once again using the music of David Wingo (though this time collaborating with Jeff McIlwain, rather than post-rock outfit Explosions in the Sky) to superb effect. He fills it with tiny, human moments, particularly a powerful montage which includes shots of Gary’s father Wade drunkenly breakdancing in the street, as well as an absolutely devastating scene between Wade and a local, homeless drifter. Sheridan, meanwhile, continues a very strong year: following up the equally terrific MUD (not to mention his first feature in 2011, TREE OF LIFE), the young actor has established himself as one to keep on your radar.

Between JOE and PRINCE AVALANCHE, David Gordon Green has reestablished himself among the most compelling independent directors working today. A terrific, powerful film.

[A]

d.a. garabedian

TIFF 2012 – Hypnotized and Transported to Another Dimension: Harmony Korine’s SPRING BREAKERS

I admit that I was thoroughly unprepared for SPRING BREAKERS. What at first glance promised to be trashy entertainment in the vein of latter-day exploitation films (lent an extra dimension of viciousness by its casting of pop-culture princesses Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez), instead offers a grim, at-times unsettling fever-dream of disconnected reality. In spite of the pedigree of Harmony Korine, it wasn’t until the moment the title cards landed on the screen that I was sure that SPRING BREAKERS wasn’t quite what I’d signed up for.

And that’s not a bad thing, either. Korine has crafted a film that is easily one of the most bizarre and compelling of the year, and it’s difficult to sift through what, if anything, the film is trying to accomplish. It’s clear from the get-go that it’s a feverish nightmare, a sick and perverted take on the American Dream that finds a way to make beautiful young people partying at the beach seem sinister and horrifying. The moment the dub-step kicks in in the opening scene and the beat drops behind freakishly excessive students having the time of their lives [note: the score is partially composed by one Sonny Moore (a.k.a. Skrillex), and it’s unlikely that will be a better pairing of musician to film this year], the hilariously dark tone of the film is set; a tone from which Korine never wavers.

Make no mistake: SPRING BREAKERS is a funny, funny movie; it’s just borderline-gallows humor. There’s something delightfully compelling about just how messed up what is happening on-screen is, despite the fact that Korine never allows the film to delve into visceral excess – something for which I am thankful for, as my uneasiness was palpable throughout in spite of the lack of violent gratuity. Had there been a more gratuitous exploration of that excess, I might not have been able to stomach it at all.

The film looks fantastic: the cinematography, the lighting and the editing all combine together to make a beautiful fantasy from which nothing can escape – least of all the characters. There’s a revelry to the entire affair that mirrors the state of mind of these psychologically disturbed young women, as Korine edits wildly around mesmerizing compositions: moments from the first act are further contextualized in the final one, and if it weren’t for the apparent linearity of the story, one might get the feeling that the film was being shown out of order. But the hallucinatory form of the film gives Korine free-reign to do whatever he pleases, and so he jumps around constantly, splicing in contextually relevant moments before their scenes have even appeared. And as malleable as the structure of the scenes are in the hands of the filmmaker, there’s never a sense of haphazardness.

Audio choices are atypical, as well. Music cues are repeated in varied arrangements, dialogue becomes a whispering, droning, repetitive sneer which loops back on itself over and over – first to progress the plot, then repeated ad nauseum until all sense of reality is lost, and the meaning behind the words twists and distorts until everything sounds like the Devil whispering in your ear.

The film isn’t perfect, however. There are a lot of issues that come out of the film in its second half, particularly because of the disjointed nature of the plot; much like in films such as FUNNY PEOPLE, SPRING BREAKERS is less typically structured under the three-act paradigm and more just split down the middle. In essence, Korine divides his film into two parts: pre-Franco and post-Franco.

In spite of the latter half’s issues (most of which stem from an unfocused thematic through-line and a generally meandering story), it is also home to the highlight of the entire film: James Franco. While all of the women in the film are suitably cast and all do a solid job, Franco steals the show out from everybody else on the production. Dressed to the nines in Sunshine State-gangster attire (complete with grills on his teeth, corn-rolled hair and tattooed from head to toe), Franco completely loses himself in the role and has more sinister fun than I’ve seen put on-screen in some time. His obviously improvised ramblings are the stuff of legend, and he is simultaneously hilarious, horrifying and pitiable. His power-drunk boasts, demanding that the girls “look at all his shit” (“shit” which includes nunchucks, a few bottles of Calvin Klein and a host of machine guns) are breathlessly entertaining, and the Britney Spears montage might be one of the darkest moments of comedy I’ve seen all year. Richard Kelly would be proud.

SPRING BREAKERS is unique, it’s interesting and it’s absolutely insane – all things that are refreshing to get out of a film that seemed at first like a cheap exploitation film that was taking advantage of the popularity of barely-legal pop-culture icons. Instead, we get a different kind of social commentary: one that says what we all expected it to say, but in a way that was far from expected. A hellish fever dream of surreal, dark comedy.

A nice change of pace, really.

8.5/10

d.a. garabedian