The Word from SXSW: 'Joe' Gives Nicolas Cage the Comeback He Deserves

The Word from SXSW: 'Joe' Gives Nicolas Cage the Comeback He Deserves

Mar 11, 2014

From our review of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance:

“There's no place for ironic love in movie stardom. If someone is a movie star, you want to see them perform based on that star power; nobody watches Brad Pitt ironically. Yet, here's the place Cage finds himself in in 2012 -- he's half-man, half-Internet meme. The fact that there may be no turning back for Cage, that the audience already sees him as a bit of a joke, is maddening."

It’s a couple of years later, and public perception of Cage hasn’t changed much. It wasn’t that long ago that Quentin Tarantino once singled out Cage as his favorite working actor, and noted that his career was built on being routinely miscast then rising to the occasion. Now, more ink has been spent on the liquidation of his comic collection and castle than in career retrospect. He’s the subject of novelty-magnet sets and faddish Tumblr jokes, and picks easy-to-mock action junk like Left Behind and Stolen as star vehicles.

David Gordon Green’s Joe will be seen as a comeback for the Oscar-winning actor, even though he never quite left the spotlight. It doesn’t make sense that the world would need to be reminded that Cage is immensely talented, when the body of work is right there for anyone to see at any given time. Even if the last few years of his career have been called into question, he still managed a series of box office hits within that time (The Croods, Kick-Ass, G-Force, Knowing) while the smarter-than crowd was derisively snickering at his brand name. If you repeat something long enough, then it must be true, right? Cage was a whacko ham who picked nothing but lousy flops.

The Cage in Joe is the Cage many of us have recognized all along. He’s not an actor who can coast; he has to stay interested (which leads to odd bits of his own devising, like chowing down on red jellybeans from a goblet as a character tic in Ghost Rider). The material has to allow him some room to play. And he plays better with some than others; his on-screen experimentation has led him down some roads to great reward (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans being a more recent example). 

During a panel at SXSW, Green said Cage asked if his character could play the pan flute in the nude at one point in Joe. Green declined Cage’s unusual request, but not every director does. One gets a sense from this anecdote that Cage gets off on spontaneity. He values the freedom to push a little and say “let me try this thing.” That process has steamrolled some directors into indulging the actor beyond their own artistic interests, but it’s also created some iconic Cage performances under the right circumstances. 

For that reason, I don’t want Cage tamed. I want him to have the freedom to ask if he can do things that sound ridiculous. Nude flute-playing wouldn't have been appropriate for Joe, but the fact that he even asked shows a curious mind -- an artist’s mind, really. There are few movie stars who’ve been around as long as Cage who are as willing to make mistakes for the sake of the occasional happy accident.

Joe, from Larry Brown’s novel of the same name, places Cage as the title figure in a violent, almost oppressively grim drama about manhood set in rural East Texas. Tye Sheridan, racking up quite an early career with this film, Mud and Tree of Life, is teen Gary, trying to be the most decent person he can be, against all odds. He’s driven to be the opposite of his redneck wino father, a nearly feral monster of a human being. Gary accepts a job poisoning trees for a lumber company from Joe, and despite Joe’s own troublemaking and violent streak, is the best example of a man the boy has ever seen. As the two shift from coworkers to friends, it places Joe in direct opposition to Gary’s father, where Joe’s own simmering temper will be put to the test.

Gary’s father is played by Gary Poulter, who Green discovered at a bus stop instead of a traditional casting call. Poulter struggled with homelessness and alcoholism himself (he died in 2013), and the character of Wade is so frighteningly realistic, you just assume that he exists -- that it isn’t an actor at play. He’s got the unhinged look of a real drunk; that horrifying quick-change temperament of a rattlesnake that signals a warning to the base of your brain. Poulter upstages the professional actors in Joe with his own authenticity. He’s terrifying. Cage told Entertainment Weekly, "I’m not a trained actor. I’m just someone who grew up watching movies and found my own way, my own style, my own craft. And in very much the same way, so was Gary Poulter. He was a street performer. He found his own way.”

It’s a strong foil for Cage to work against. It can be a challenge placing a big star in the middle of a piece like this. Their public persona can distract an audience from whatever authenticity the actor is working toward. You can’t see the character; you only see the actor. Cage slips into the role of this bruiser so believably, that if there’s an audience acknowledgment of the movie star within, it’s because we’re being reminded that, yeah, this is how Cage became a movie star in the first damned place -- by being a remarkable actor. 

If there are happy accidents in Joe, they’re a seamless part of the whole piece, and if you’ve already brushed off Cage as a has-been, this film should prove you dead wrong.

Following its premiere at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival, Joe will officially arrive in theaters on April 11. Check out more of our coverage of this year's SXSW Film Festival here.


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