There are generally two kinds of Nicolas Cage films, both of which can make you wince.
In movies such as "Leaving Las Vegas," "Red Rock West" and "Vampire's Kiss," the Oscar-winning actor shows occasional brilliance as a somewhat sympathetic character whose actions aren't always easy to watch but -- like a bad accident -- we can't look away from. Then there are movies such as "Face/Off," "8MM" and "Ghost Rider," which are painful to watch for other reasons -- mostly because we know he can do better.
So it's good to see Cage back in positive-wince territory in the new film "Joe," in which he plays a blue collar ex-con in rural Texas trying to resume an ordinary life despite his violent past -- and despite the fact that, even with a big heart, he suffers setback after setback.
It's not Cage's best performance -- it's occasionally tough not seeing it as Nicolas Cage doing Nicolas Cage. For one thing, he talks like Nicolas Cage, instead of someone waist-deep in a tough, impoverished region of Texas.
But overall, he's still convincing, and "Joe," adapted from the Larry Brown novel of the same name, is a captivating film. Director David Gordon Green paints a bleak picture of a Southern town full of drunks, nuts, and drunken nuts. The story starts with the appearance of a family of drifters, including Wade Jones (Gary Poulter). In a chilling bit of realism -- which adds significantly to the film's powerful authenticity -- Poulter was a homeless man with no professional acting experience who, after stealing scenes in "Joe" with an outraged and downright frightening performance, died on an Austin, Texas, street shortly after filming.
Poulter is the violent, alcoholic father of 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), whose eagerness to provide for his abused mother and mute sister prompts Joe Ransom (Cage) to take him under his wing, thus providing a path for Joe's assumed salvation. Fueling the film's desperate and bleak tone is the coiled tension between Joe and Gary's father, who will do anything for a drink (the length to which he will actually go is shocking).
Then there's the small-time criminal/scumbag Willie (a nasty Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has some payback issues with Joe, and the local police force, with which Joe has continuous conflict. Much of the film feels like a race between Joe's attempts to save Gary and the inevitable outbreak of preordained violence that will seal the fate of at least some of the characters.
Getting in the way occasionally is some gratuitous sex and the mostly unnecessary love interest in Connie (Adriene Mishler), a sort-of girlfriend who needs Joe but realizes he comes with a serious amount of drama, usually because he insists on taking what he believes is the virtuous path, against all reason.
Set in a town where folks see a deer stuck on a fence, get out of the car and bring it home for dinner, "Joe" offers relief from the bleak tension at times by offering scenes of humanity and bits of humor (an old man somehow good at break dancing, a weirdly funny scene involving a dogfight, and Joe trying to teach Gary "how to make a cool face"). Green and screenwriter Gary Hawkins take care to develop the characters that you will either root for or hope will meet the worst end possible. Either way, "Joe" ties up the audience emotionally.
The ugly bleakness exhibited in "Joe" isn't the same kind of stylized darkness one finds in Cormac McCarthy stories, for example. "Joe," while not in the same class as films like "No Country for Old Men," nevertheless feels more real. As for Cage, he isn't always on his game, but when he is, very few actors can match his sense of intensity and inner pain. A few more films like "Joe," and we might start forgetting all those other-wince-inducing movies he made.
* * *
Rating: R (violence, disturbing material, language, some strong sexual content)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler
Director: David Gordon Green
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes