Movie Review - Joe (2014)

It's interesting to see this film in the wake of Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez, a story about a man who works to improve the labor conditions of a poor, ethnic class of people. Nicolas Cage's titular character isn't a political activist, but, in his own small way, his efforts go for the poor, working class. For Cesar Chavez, it's the Mexican farmers in California. For Joe, it's African-American woodsmen in Texas.

Joe owns a business that he runs somewhat under the table. He employs black men who have perhaps been in trouble with the law or who perhaps can't get legitimate work elsewhere for one reason or another. He picks up all his employees in the back of his old, blue GMC Sierra and pays them, sometimes with cash, out the back of that old truck.

When a white teenage boy named Gary approaches him for work, Joe doesn't require references or for him to fill out a W-2 form or anything. Joe does this because he was possibly himself in a position where he couldn't get work any other way but under the table. Joe is a man who's possibly giving back. I'm just curious as to what his back story was that got him here.

Based on the novel by Larry Brown, the screenplay by Gary Hawkins hints at that back story, but, for the most part, Joe's history remains a mystery. Cage's quiet performance, which occasionally hits with outbursts of defiance, particularly against police, is compelling to watch, but it screams a history that should have been told. Otherwise, I'm not sure what's motivating Joe when we meet him.

The way in which director David Gordon Green inter-cuts between Joe and Gary, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life and Mud) and parallels their actions in an early slow-motion sequence bonds the older man to the younger boy. It is perhaps Green's way of signaling that Gary's story is Joe's story, that Gary's future path might have been the road Joe's traveled.

It becomes clear that the film is building to a point where Joe is going to have to rescue Gary. It's possible and more than likely that whatever hard times Joe faced in his life, he was able to overcome all by himself. Yet, Gary's hard times can't be overcome by him alone. He needs someone like Joe to pull him up.

Gary has a drunk and abusive father. His mom is too battered and beaten down to do anything. Gary also has a mute sister who he's tantamount to raising. His parents don't seem to make enough money to feed the family, so Gary puts it upon himself to be the breadwinner. It's really up to Gary, despite being 15, to be the adult in his family and take care of his family.

What's heartbreaking is the realization that this child can't be a child. He has to work hard labor in order to survive. The insanity is that Gary realizes this and accepts it. He doesn't complain. He doesn't curse God. He simply works to provide for his family.

Other recent films have done this. Other films have made adults out of children. The Dynamiter and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete are great because those films focused on the children. This film really is about the relationship between Gary and Joe, and the scenes between Cage and Sheridan are the best. Yet, I would have loved the film to be more about Gary, but the film divides its time with pointless scenes of Joe in a whore house. More scenes in Gary's home with his mom and sister would have filled out Gary's world.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.


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