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.