A Tough, Excellent Movie

by Michael Potemra

In my almost 15 years at National Review, the second-most-gleeful moment I have seen my colleagues enjoy was when some of them discovered the Internet video of Nicolas Cage and the bees. (The most gleeful moment, of course, was on the occasion of the first ​RomneyObama debate; though there were, in that latter case, dark, temperamentally conservative voices who warned that there would be tears before bedtime.)

That notorious clip from The Wicker Man represents just the high point of an industrious schlock-movie career that includes a very long list of wild-eyed Cage over-performances. (Of the few of those movies I have seen, I have actually found some charming and likable; but, in general, the less said of them the better.) The result is that, by now, almost an entire generation of Americans has grown up completely unaware of the fact that Nicolas Cage is actually an immensely talented actor. That’s just one reason I strongly recommend the new movie Joe: The central performance by Cage is fantastic.

Cage’s character, Joe, is an ex-con who leads a crew of workers who poison trees to death so that loggers can legally cut them down. A drifter kid trying to break out of his family situation — he has a violent, drunken, abusive father – throws himself into the crew’s labors with great abandon, and sees in Joe the kind of person he would like to become. Joe is himself a man of violence trying to go straight, and his ungovernable temper makes his attempt to help the kid deal with his violent home life highly dangerous.

The film is set in a poor rural area near Austin, Texas, and director David Gordon Green said, at the screening I attended, that Cage is the only actor in the film was who not a local. I believe it: The people and locations in the movie create a very strong sense of place. It is a stark and poor landscape, and the men and women in it come across as real people, some likeable, some scary — not Hollywood people impersonating po’folks. It is a credit to Cage that he blends in with this realistic casting.

It is a violent film, so be forewarned; but it is also a hopeful one. The role of fathers is much discussed in social science these days, and it is undeniable that kids who lack a positive role model in their home life will look for one elsewhere. Sometimes the consequences are tragic. In this film, we have a powerful story of how people can find good values — and build a future of possibility — in the bleakest circumstances. Strongly recommended.

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