The similarities between this film and Mud are great enough to be worth noting. Both are films about teenage boys finding new, and enigmatic, father figures whilst facing problems (admittedly of a different magnitude) at home. Both are also set in poor communities in the southern United States and feature titular characters with a history of being in trouble with the law. This, however, is where the similarities end as Joe departs along a decidedly more depressing track that, despite being arguably more realistic in some respects, does not lead to it being a better film.
From the outset of the film when we meet Gary (played by Tye Sheridan, who also played the teenage lead in Mud and is superb in both) it is apparent that he has a difficult relationship with his dad. This is understandable given that the latter is an alcoholic with a violent streak who will let nothing come in the way of his next drink. This point, in case we missed it, is later underlined by the most graphically violent scene in the film. Gary’s dad, Wade, is brought to life by Gary Poulter (who was living on the streets of Austin, Texas when he was cast for the role and, sadly, has subsequently died) in a performance that is gripping and repulsive; this is a character with few redeeming characteristics.
By contrast, Joe (played in his usual cool style by Nicolas Cage) is a man with his heart in the right place despite his history of, and tendency towards, violence. We are introduced to him as he carries out a day’s work with his crew (poisoning trees so that the can be cleared and the land can be replanted with more valuable timber; a metaphor for the need to destroy in order to create something better?). The paths of the two main characters cross when Gary’s family roll into town and he comes to Joe looking for work. From there their friendship grows and as Gary learns what makes Joe tick so Joe learns about Gary’s family’s problems.
This part of the film is handled reasonably well and the dilemma facing Joe – whether he should intervene to protect Gary (and the rest of his family) from Wade when the risks to all involved are high – is an interesting one. As it turns out though, Joe ends up having little choice in the matter because, as is the case in Mud, the climax of the film centres on events that require action on his part. This narrative demand for some sort of issue to be resolved may be a flaw in both films but there is something that makes it additionally problematic in the case of Joe. Here we have a final act that, horrifying as it is, feels as if it’s just the last manifestation of how horrendous Wade is. It’s almost as if the whole film is saying ‘look, look how horrible this man is; not convinced yet? How about if he does this, do you hate him yet?’
Mud arguably has a finale that is too action packed but the film as a whole renders a well-rounded and interesting image of lives that have pain and problems but also love and tenderness. It’s not trying to set good against evil, it’s just telling a story of how a couple of teenagers deal with the imperfections in their lives as they grow up, and how this process relates to the entry of a new figure into those lives. By contrast, Joe relies on creating a character, in the form of Wade (not to mention the people he comes to associate with) that borders on pure evil. There’s little or no effort to show another side to that character or to explain why he has reached the point that he has; he simply serves as a terrible reality that must be escaped. Since I don’t believe in pure, unexplained, evil I find such a character difficult to be convinced by (and not, as noted above, because of any shortcoming in Poulter’s performance).
I’m not naive enough to believe that there aren’t people who do things as terrible as Wade does, or that life in poor communities in the southern United States isn’t tough. However, I often find films that seem to emphasise how horrible things are disengaging. This is why, generally, I prefer the work of Shane Meadows to that of Ken Loach. The latter hammers home his messages in a way that makes some of his films feel like lectures, whereas the former tells a story and trusts the audience to take the message away. This is England (one of my favourite films), like Mud, paints a rich picture of a community with good and bad and, in the form of Combo, has a deeply unpleasant character who we also understand and even, to an extent, sympathise with. Where Joe and Ken Loach show us poor people who are either sad and oppressed or angry and fighting, Mud and Shane Meadows show us humans who are sad, angry and violent, but also loving, funny and silly, as well as many other things. As such, they are no different from other humans. I find this more appealing and, ultimately, more convincing.
Joe is a deeply depressing film but it tells an interesting story and presents characters, in the form of Gary and Joe, who we can root for. Unfortunately, the world they inhabit feels too one-sided and, as such, they feel like observations in a social commentary rather than humans.