I’ve admired David Gordon Green’s output over the years for a variety of reasons. He’s been a director (with the aid of his regular cinematographer Tim Orr) of considerable visual aptitude. As a budding cinephile, his work often struck me as oppositional to the other narrative-heavy, American independent filmmakers. His emulation of Terrence Malick doesn’t necessarily feel like riffing but rather a natural expression of the social milieu he probes. The rawness of his films is heightened by his subject matter, which often deals with the plights of the working class and poverty-stricken. But rather than embellishing or exploiting his subjects, he imposes a distance to his subjects - it’s particularly the case in his early films where his direction is dictated by observational tendencies rather than a series of plot devices.
George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, and Snow Angels all embody a lyrical quality that positioned Green as the heir apparent to Terrence Malick. The start of his sell-out period (Pineapple Express) didn’t drown out the director’s cathartic qualities either and showed promise that the director could work different styles to a degree of success. Last year’s Prince Avalanche showed the director returning to his roots to a degree, offering the Green’s Great Compromise ™ - effectively balancing the comic sensibility he’d adopted for two films (Your Highness and The Sitter) to the melancholia of his earlier films. Whereas Prince Avalanche was a successful recalibration of his style, Joe is a complete return to form.
What a film like Joe proves is that Green is a director attuned to the pangs of masculinity and the relationships men forge under poverty-stricken conditions. The titular Joe (Nicolas Cage) heads a small troop of laborers as they clear forest land. With Joe’s promise for a day’s pay for a day’s work, the working class troop of black men value Joe’s plain-speaking honesty. Joe is confronted by a young boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan) about a job. Eager and hardworking, Gary is hired on the spot and quickly finds his place in the group. The circumstance is jeopardized when Gary’s alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter) looks for a job as well - only to stunt the hardworking collaborative. An abusive father, Wade is quick to exploit his son’s hard work for his own gain as he beats the boy and steals his earnings. Joe’s reluctance to interject is compounded by his history and refusal to impede on the problems of others - his tale of woe extends to prison time and a prolonged stretch of isolation.
While Joe is one of Green’s more narrative-heavy pictures, and one of the few films he’s directed that he didn’t take part in writing, it’s one of Green’s most successful attempts at drawing a cathartic experience. For someone who has followed Green’s work, Joe cultivates all the qualities that Green has developed over the years. A particular line in the film, “When you become a man you’ll have everything figured out” deconstructs a sensibility that permeates throughout all of Green’s work, the sense that the men of his films are in constant search for answers in a world of social and political oppression. The men of his films - from Paul in All the Real Girls to Alvin in Prince Avalanche - are constantly attempting to reconcile the notion that as men, they should have everything figured out. It’s a delusion that weighs heavily on all the characters in Joe and a feeling that Green realizes with startling poignancy.