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'Joe' movie review: 'Gran Torino' meets 'Winter's Bone'

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Joe

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Beautifully filmed if arguably too-slowly paced, "Joe" brings us a gritty character study of life amid Life’s tooth and claw.

Here we meet Joe Ransom, an ex-con from a small Texas town in which memory runs so deep that one’s mistakes, even one’s debts paid, can never be erased. Joe has quite the temper, and though he’s learned to keep a lid on it, it’s a daily maintenance issue.

Having put life straight, Joe now runs a forestry team, goes home to an empty house at night, visits the local brothel on occasion, and keeps his cool by drinking a little (okay, probably a lot) too much. He’s tough enough not to shy away from life’s dirty work, but tender enough to take a pass whenever possible. Keeping his head down and his nose clean one day at a time, he’s hit an even, if fragile, keel.

And then one day onto the job walks a young man named Gary. Gary is everything a parent could ask for: diligent and responsible, kind and strong, honest and hardworking. He’s also in big trouble: his father goes beyond the description of your garden-variety “mean drunk,” and his mother is equally besotted but utterly shut down. Gary is the brother of a girl so traumatized that she’s fallen mute, and the son of parents too unfit to comprehend what they have, much less ask for or deserve it.

But Joe comprehends Gary most definitely, and comprehends his entire situation including its likely path. And he doesn’t like it, not one bit. Toss in unhinged local Willie-Russell, and Gary’s in the middle of a perfect storm. Fortunately, one component of it is on his side. Big time.

I’ve spoken on other occasions ("Prisoners", "Unthinkable") about how there are types of violence that go on every day, for which any degree of intellectual honesty demands our acknowledgement that if we’re wanting an unpleasant thing done, then we oughtn’t close our eyes to doing of it – and then be grateful for those willing to do it (and quit with any self-righteous judging of them for the doing).

Some such violence is simply in the way of things, whether it’s processing a deer found on the roadside or clearing a forest to make room for the new. Both strike some sensibilities as difficult, but they are merely the ferocity of the world; whether such sensibilities are too delicate, or those that would deride them too callous, is a matter of one’s own understanding.

Then there’s the self-inflicted violence borne of human frailty: of the failure to rise above one’s own challenge, of allowing oneself to buckle under its load and visit its damage upon those nearby (as with Gary’s mother). It’s the conflagration occurring when control of such frailty is lost (as with Joe); and it’s the tragic loss of life, be it of heartbeat or of future, that ensues where a person is bereft of resources either by circumstance, ignorance, or omission (as with Joe and with Gary’s family in its entirety – support was available that was either unrealized or declined).

But there’s the ferocity of the world, and there’s the frailty of humanity, and then there’s the pure savagery of evil. The savagery of vile lust for power and pleasure in cruelty (Gary’s father and Willie-Russell, who epitomizes the word “predator” in every sense of that term).

Such savagery is overcome by nobility (as with Gary), but here I’m also hearing Judi Dench’s "Chronicles of Riddick" intro: “In normal times, evil would be fought with good. But in times like these, well, it should be fought by another kind of evil.”

And so goes the argument of one Joe Ransom.

"Joe" pushes us not to look away from any of this, just as Joe himself looks himself straight in the eye, knowing himself and his limits and the reality of the consequences they bring. And if it comes to it, other uses to which they may be put.

Where is it sacrifice, and where is it shortsightedness? Where is it giving up, and where is it acknowledging the inevitable outcome and doing something good with it before the end? Where we find ourselves railing against an outcome, what are we willing to see done, and what lines of law and order are we willing to see crossed in order that it be so?

Rather than engaging us in these questions, "Joe" simply lays the actions before us. It doesn’t invite us to join this exploration, to decide where we fall on the continuum, as do "Prisoners" and "Unthinkable", and perhaps this is its flaw; in not directly pulling us into the debate, it lands simply as a character study of life in a dog-eat-dog (warning: literally) world.

Directed by David Gordon Green, "Joe" is simply beautiful to experience (tough, but beautiful). Following the tradition of his previous outings "Snow Angels" and "Undertow", he’s proven himself quite the capable capturer of the gentle caught in life’s cruel clutches, without ever becoming so cruel to us the audience as to be avoided.

The score here is simply gorgeous, penned by Green collaborators Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo, who scored "Snow Angels" (and also "Mud", starring Tye Sheridan, who plays Gary). And rounding out the proceedings are a marvelous Nicolas Cage, in full force acting mode (always a treat, as opposed to the caricature mode he’s all-too-well known for).

A surprising and delightful treat is the performance of Gary Poulter as Gary’s despicable father, Wade (a.k.a. G-Daawg). Within seconds (seconds!) of the film’s start Wade’s mean-spiritedness makes itself known; at first we feel some compassion given that he’s clearly alcoholic, but it doesn’t take long to realize that there’s a truly vile nature lurking beneath the affliction.

All this, and Poulter was literally pulled from the street to play Wade, much as Dwight Henry was pulled from his bakery for "Beasts of the Southern Wild". No training, just a life experience that shone through and fit like a glove, combined with an innate talent for getting inside his character’s skin and actually acting. Magical.

In this case, Poulter actually was a man suffering from alcoholism and homeless as a result. One would naturally hope that the experience of being the film may provide a turning point for him, and perhaps it would have been, but tragically, the effects of the condition claimed his life before he had a chance to see it realized onscreen.

If you enjoy diving into a milieu, you’ll really enjoy this one. "Joe" does best for people who revel in being inside someone’s ordinary moment, in lingering within it in real time. And if you’re sensing some delicate phrasing on my part here, you’re right.

There is narrative, to be sure, but its forward motion tends to occur every twelve minutes or so, with the interim filled with moments of lighting a cigarette, swigging a drink, etc. What is supposed to feel like a slow burn just ends up feeling unnecessarily languid.

Languid, that is, until Joe’s emotions overtake him, triggering a raging and primal juxtapositional sequence of such bloodletting fury as to be disproportionate to the tone of the film, and thus unnecessarily jarring.

Clearly it’s intended to represent the level of fury within Joe, but rather than coming across as two polar opposites within him, the film’s overall effect feels uneven and aimless, as when a sleepy driver relaxes the grip on a steering wheel and heads for the adjoining lane, then grabs it back for a while, then lets it go, and so on, with one huge lurch in the middle to avoid a head-on collision, which jars one awake enough to keep control for the rest of the trip.

I suspect "Joe" may be one of those films that comes into its own over time. Is this a flaw? Strong reasoning says yes; if one is to ask an audience to give time and talent, there should be full – even if not complete - reward for doing so, not merely the promise of satisfaction should one double one’s investment.

It’s unclear whether the pacing aspects are actually flaws, or if instead "Joe" comes into its fullness with a second viewing – but I’m definitely willing to give it that chance.

Story: An ex-con striving to remain on the straight and narrow finds his protective instincts, and his dangerous temper, triggered by the plight of a young man in trouble.

Genre: Drama, character study

Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler

Directed by: David Gordon Green (Snow Angels, Undertow)

MPAA: R

Running time: 117 minutes

Official site: http://joefilm.net

Houston release date: April 11, 2014 | Also premiering Video On Demand

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Mar 7th 2014 at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

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