There’s a movie called Bob and the Trees that premiered at Sundance last month. It’s about a guy named Bob, and it’s about some trees. Bob’s a logger in rural Massachusetts, and when winter sets in he starts encountering problems. The premise alone isn’t particularly exciting, so Bob and the Trees draws compelling cinema from another source: the fact that Bob is played by a logger named Bob, and Bob the character is very much a version of Bob the logger. It’s fiction, of course, but it’s also true (“nonfiction” doesn’t seem like the right word). The characters are reading a script, but they’re more or less reading it as themselves. It makes Bob and the Trees into a kind of hybrid that looks and feels — again, for lack of a better word — real.
David Gordon Green’s Joe isn’t exactly that. It’s not a true documentary, not docudrama, not cinéma vérité, not kino-pravda (“film-truth”), and not even as factual as Bob and the Trees. But damn if it isn’t close, and damn if it isn’t Green’s most balanced and lifelike film since his 2001 debut George Washington.
Up-and-comer Tye Sheridan is Gary, a young boy living in extreme poverty in the Deep South with his mute sister, his sick mother, and his violently alcoholic father. He runs across Nicholas Cage’s Joe, a contractor of sorts running a strange tree-poisoning operation, and Joe ends up giving him a job and watching over him. Tensions rise when Gary’s father and an old enemy of Joe’s enter the picture. Aside from Sheridan and Cage and one or two others, the rest of the cast is filled with non-professional actors that for all intents and purposes play versions of themselves. The primary example is Joe’s work crew, made up of men who aren’t shown doing anything besides riding to work in the back of a truck, hacking at trees with little axes, and riding back home again.
The crew is nonetheless made up of characters, not cardboard cutouts or filler extras, and that’s due to the extreme care and delicacy Green takes in filming them. Even if the tree-poisoning gig is what initially made me think of Bob and the Trees, it’s the way each individual characterization is drawn not out of exposition but out of action that makes Joe so true-to-life. Even the dialogue is action-based, with the crew foreman giving Gary an orientation to tree-poisoning and berating Gary’s father for not working hard enough. The foreman isn’t ever seen outside of this context, but somehow his entire history is implied in his short scenes.
The alcoholic Wade is the better example. Gary Poulter was a homeless man approached by Green for the part of Wade, having never before appeared in a film, and sadly he died shortly after filming. Calling his role a “performance” implies preparation, time spent getting into character, rehearsal, and the like. Joe may very well have been made up of “performances”, but it certainly doesn’t show. Poulter’s Wade is just there, everywhere, never seeming like he’s acting at all, laughing hoarsely and nudging his son Gary before hitting the bottle and nudging Gary a whole lot harder. It’s intense, and because Poulter so obviously lived a life similar to his character’s life, it’s also heartbreaking.
And Cage — ah, Nicholas Cage — is actually great as Joe. He and Sheridan click with each other and with the larger framework of the film, only standing out among the rest of the cast because we’ve seen their faces somewhere else before. Both Joe and Gary have been beaten down constantly, Joe by his past as a convicted felon and Gary by his abusive father, but both staunchly refuse to be victims. Gary’s only fifteen years old, but when a would-be thug threatens him he takes him down and gives him a beating. “You think I’m a little kid?” he demands. Joe recognizes that Gary in fact is a kid, a young man exposed to incredible violence from his own family, and a part of him wants to help Gary grow into a man who doesn’t have to look back in regret as he does.
So there’s a strong story in Green’s hyper-realistic world. At times, there’s something about the Southern gothic forests of Joe that somehow seem to reverse that realism, exuding a cosmic and paranormal aura in which Gary and Joe are trapped. It’s not overly foreboding, of course, but the tree-poisoning and some particularly toothsome lines (Joe, about to fire his gun, saying “Look at the moon”) provide this queasy-cool feeling of supernaturalism among the naturalism. The first meeting of Gary and Joe has this feel to it, Joe holding a snake surrounded by his crew, all of them afraid to get too close until Gary emerges from the trees and steps up right next to Joe.
Though that gothic imagery is fantastic and tonally makes Joe into a kind of modern-day Night of the Hunter, the realism is the reason to stick around; there’s realism, and then there are movies like Joe. That union of the realistic and the immeasurable other, the simplest things existing alongside unimaginable cruelty, always reminds me of Cormac McCarthy, an author whose style fits nicely with that description. Should they ever film Blood Meridian they might look to Tye Sheridan as The Kid, David Gordon Green as director, and anyone but Nic Cage for the rest of the production. Sorry, Nic.