By Bill Wine
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – The first act in Nicolas Cage’s crowded career as a screen actor and movie star was a triumph.
It included strong, lauded performances in such films as Birdy, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Honeymoon in Vegas, Con Air, and Matchstick Men, an Oscar nomination for Adaptation, and an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
He was busy, he was productive, he was respected.
The second act found him just as busy and maybe just as gifted, but his choice of productions was, for whatever reason, so shaky that he became a symbol of meretricious moviemaking and hammy acting, his name in the credits seeming to spell artistic doom.
As he embarks on a third act that could go in any of several directions, those of us who admired him early on but feel he squandered his skills as the years went by hereby hope that he emerges in films of merit once again.
Which brings us to his latest outing in the lead, Joe, which demonstrates that his prodigious talent remains but that his ability to choose projects remains unfortunate.
In the grim, character-driven drama, Joe, set in rural East Texas, tattooed and paunchy Cage stars as Joe Ransom, an explosive but compassionate ex-convict who oversees an illegal tree-poisoning operation for a local lumber company that plans to replace the felled trees with more profitable pines.
Most of his employees are grown men, but, trying to do the right thing, he offers a job in response to a request by a dirt-poor 15-year-old he meets, played by Tye Sheridan, whose father is an abusive alcoholic who resents that his son’s new employer seems to be functioning as a protective father figure.
Director David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Right Girls, Undertow, Pineapple Express, Your Highness) focuses on Cage, who gives a performance of authenticity and power that transcends the material, but not enough to win us over and truly engage us. It does, however, remind us of what Cage can do when he is blessed with scripting that deserves his attention and commitment.
Even though it is a larger-than-life performance, Cage overplays neither Joe’s weaknesses nor his strengths, but somehow offers us a direct, layered glimpse of both as he strains to contain his justified rage just as the actor restrains himself from the kind of over-the-top impulses (that TV Cage impressionists love to trot out) that we’ve seen too much of from him in recent years. This time it’s an admirable, watchable Cage whom we recognize from his early days on-screen and whom we’ve missed of late.
The screenplay by Gary Hawkins, adapted from the 1991 novel of the literal same name by Larry Brown, stays afloat for a stretch, but goes completely bonkers and hyper-gothic in the late going, leaving everything but the eruptive violence and bloodshed behind while it lets its hysterical (as opposed to hilarious) climax play out.
So we’ll chop down 2 stars out of 4. Nicolas Cage’s turn as the paradoxical but believable title character is by far the best thing about Joe.