Joe on Netflix Instant or: The Beautiful Insanity of Letting Nicolas Cage Be Nicolas Cage

joe movie nicolas cage
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If you filled a speedball with a dose of Winter’s Bone, a dash of Eastbound & Down and a hefty pour of old-school Nicolas Cage, the result—once injected into celluloid—would be director David Gordon Green’s Joe.

In many ways, it’s the kind of film that Scorsese and Bob Rafelson and Sam Peckinpah were making in their heyday. I’m not saying that Joe is as good as Taxi Driver or Five Easy Pieces or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, but for the most part, it’s got the type of filmmaking balls that those flicks had.

And much in the same way that badass character actors like De Niro, Nicholson and Warren Oates were given free reign to go apeshit in those flicks, Nicolas Cage gets the opportunity to show why there are still those among us with faith in a guy whose recent filmography has redefined Hollywood’s Mendoza Line.

Nicolas Cage Warren Oates Jack Nicholson Robert De Niro

What’s not to love about morally conflicted men with the weight of the world on their shoulders and a vicious mean streak?

But before I get too much into Cage, let’s get back to that idea of why Joe, for the most part, feels like a fitting accompaniment to that period of unbridled, freeform filmmaking that was so excellently captured in the nostalgic documentary A Decade Under the Influence.

On the surface, Joe opens as a film about a volatile but goodhearted ex-con who’s gone semi-straight and now runs a work crew that poisons trees at the behest of a big lumber company. Joe hires on a 15-year-old boy (Tye Sheridan, Mud) to help out, and the two develop a close bond. Problem is, boy has a drunken, money-grubbing pappy who’s meaner than the day is long. A scarfaced nemesis of Joe’s also helps set the stage for the film’s storyline.

But the storyline is by no means why I’m gushing about this film. Joe excels much more as a series of  dark, improvisational backwoods vignettes than it does as a traditional narrative. It’s got that raw edge of ’70s classics like Deliverance, wherein much of the film’s wit, hilarity and unease comes from real folks (and a few trained actors) engaging in loosely directed, improvisational scenes composed of regional dialect.

joe movie gary pouter brian mays

“You betta get yo ass up out my mothafuckin’ jaw… Ya country mothafucka!”

Essentially, Joe is a mood piece set to the tune of barking dogs, rain, booze, skid row slumming and cigarette smoke. But the film’s mood is also just a backdrop, or a platform for two of the most unforgettable performances from 2013.

One of these comes through the off-the-cuff acting of Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless drunken drifter who was tapped to play Tye Sheridan’s dad. Regardless of whether you decide to watch Joe, I highly recommend reading his tragic story.

In one of the most equally unsettling and poignant cinematic scenes I can think of, Poulter’s character Wade (AKA G-Daawg), stalks a man over a bottle of cheap wine. Without giving anything away, what plays out in this scene is what makes Poulter’s character mesmerizing throughout: the depiction of a man hellbent on ruin and greed who, at the same time, hangs on to the most utterly minuscule shred of humanity that could possibly exist within a person.

In that same scene, Poulter also delivers a line that could easily serve as an epitaph for the actor, who died by drunkenly drowning in a puddle of water before Joe was released…

g-daawg gary poulter

“A person just don’t know from one day to the next which one is going to be their last.” -Gary Poulter, 1959-2013

You can’t write a character like Wade, who goes on a lengthy diatribe about “popping and locking” and shows off his own dance moves in a scene that’s kind of like Napoleon Dynamite meets the knee-slapping redneck gas station attendant from Deliverance. The only way you can get a performance like his is to drag a quasi-genius hobo like Gary Poulter off the street, stick him into your movie, and see what happens. In Joe—as in those films of yore—the gamble pays off with an almost hyperreal effect.

deliverance You don't know nothin

“You don’t know nothin’.”

And now I think it’s about time we discuss Nicolas Cage.

Perhaps you watched Ghost Rider and its sequel and wanted to swallow a cyanide capsule. Perhaps you watched Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry or The Wicker Man remake (truly one of the worst movies ever made). Perhaps you’re just so let down that an actor with so much promise decided to go the De Niro route, spending the last 20 years involved mainly in a series of disastrous money grabs. Or maybe you’ve just had enough of this:

(I hope you enjoyed that as much as I did.) Moving on…

I will admit that what I’m writing about Joe is by far the most biased recommendation I’ve given on this blog. There was a point in my adolescence when I idolized Cage the way Johnny Depp did Hunter S. Thompson. I didn’t merely admire the man—I wanted to be him. I took this obsession so far as choosing Nicolas as my Christian name when I was confirmed at age 13.

After all, three of the greatest action movies ever made had just come out: Face/Off, The Rock and Con Air (yeah, Con Air is a classic in my book… hate all ya want). There was not a man in Hollywood with the swagger or ability to deliver a line like Cage.

Then came duds like Snake Eyes, 8MM and Bringing Out the Dead, and all of a sudden, the Michael Jordan of acting was gone in sixty seconds.

At that age, I was unaware of a little flick—sandwiched between those epic blockbusters—called Leaving Las Vegas (also on Netflix Instant). Cage proved there his acting chops were both something extraordinary and something of a uniquely inimitable brand that only one man possessed.

Since Joe‘s release, it’s been billed as Cage’s return to form, and his strongest work since Leaving Las Vegas. The latter is true, but for every 10 Season of the Witch’s, Cage has managed to slip a few great, overlooked performances into his repertoire. Chief among these was his work in the great Werner Herzog’s miserably titled Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. A lot of folks also liked Adaptation. (personally I could give two shits about the pretension of Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze, but Cage was good in it). And Lord of War was a thoroughly enjoyable machismo rip-off of Goodfellas.

So what is so damn special about Cage’s performance in Joe? Well, not only is he given free reign to be himself, but he’s given free reign to be a vile, hilarious psychopath, which if we’re being honest, is exactly where Cage excels:

Cage goes rogue-Cage in this movie, and for anyone who’s ever been a fan of his, it’s one of the most glorious damn things in years. This said, I think it would be a mistake to heap all the praise solely on the man himself. Which is where David Gordon Green comes in.

Green has a resume that makes very little sense. In the early 2000s, he was doing touchy-feely indie flicks. Then he joined the Seth Rogen-Jonah Hill bandwagon and directed Your Highness and Pineapple Express. And then he made that pandering piece of indie laxative that you’ll see on every Gawker-y Netflix list called Prince Avalanche. However, he also directed 12 episodes of the sensational John Rocker-themed HBO series Eastbound & Down, starring Danny McBride as Kenny “La Flama Blanca” Powers.

Kenny Powers David Gordon Green Joe

Eastbound & Down: one of the best comedy series ever made. Period.

EB&D merits mention in this growing novella of a post for a few reasons. Namely, co-creators Jody Hill and Danny McBride were executive producers on Joe (and also because of Green’s connection)For those who can detect it, Joe is full of the exact same brand of black humor that EB&D made a killing on. And that—combined with the improvisational acting and bleakness of Winter’s Bone—is what makes Joe such a fascinating, eclectic anomaly of a film.

joe that dog is an asshole

Cage’s fixation with referring to canines as “assholes” provides for some of Joe‘s better laughs.

Not everyone is going to love this movie. And since its much more scattered and unhinged than your traditional Hollywood narrative, I’m sure a lot of folks will just wonder what the fuck is going on. Which is fair, because Joe has its share of flaws. (For example, the constant shrouded-in-menacing-mystery dialogue about who Joe really is is played up more than just a little heavy handedly.)

But if we’re calling Joe a flawed movie, I’d add that it’s hands-down one of the best flawed movies made in the last 40 years. Joe is country noir at its finest, and a prime example of a national treasure getting back to what he does best.

GRADE: A-
IMDb: 6.9

-Sam Adams

NOTE: I particularly recommend this flick to folks who liked Blue Ruin; Jeff Nichols movies like Shotgun Stories and Mud; and anyone who’s ever read a Daniel Woodrell novel.

The best of Netflix Instant if bleak, thrilling cinema is your ASMR: Part IV

Headhunters
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For the meager contingent of American viewers not averse to subtitles, Netflix Instant has a king’s ransom of great suspense flicks (and horror, for that matter). I’ll cover some disturbingly sinister Korean flicks in an upcoming post, but for now let’s focus on Northern and Western Europe, the birthplaces of two of the best modern thrillers you’re likely to see. From a Norwegian art thief battling a Game of Thrones villain to France’s answer to The Fugitive, these picks just might change your attitude on how badass things can be in the lands of reindeer and berets.

Headhunters
headhunters
Norway has become a relatively quiet and peaceful place ever since the vikings battled and killed off the last of the trolls in the 1400s. Known chiefly for lutefisk, good healthcare and really nice people, it’s not exactly the most thrilling spot on the globe. However, Norway did produce the great author Knut Hamsun (literary father of John Fante and Charles Bukowski), and has more recently been churning out some eerily good cinema (TrollhunterDead Snow).

keef hates lutefisk

Lutefisk makes malort taste like Hawaiian Punch.

Headhunters (2011) is a brilliant thriller that significantly bolsters Norway’s list of hallmark achievements. It tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a corporate job recruiter (“headhunter” is a fitting entendre here) who moonlights as an art thief. Aksel is a deceptive, philandering little man who’s main concern in life is making enough money to keep up the lavish lifestyle that he believes will keep his Norse goddess of a wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) from leaving him. His concern is palpable. After all, wifey could be a doppelgänger for a younger Heidi Klum, whereas Roger looks more like the middle-aged brother of Christopher Walken and Ron Weasley. (#nodisrespecttochristopherwalken)

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Photo courtesy of norwegianancestry.com

Headhunters—or as I’ve retitled it, The Roger Brown Affair—spirals into a thrilling manhunt after Roger decides to steal an original Rubens painting from a mysterious, dashing man he’s introduced to at wifey’s art show. The “victim” in question is Clas Greve (Kingslayer from Game of Thrones, who plays Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in real life). Clas is an ex-special ops assassin who specializes in military tracking methods. From here, things literally go to shit for Roger (see: the best use of an outhouse since Slumdog Millionaire).

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

Slay on, Slayah!

The game of cunning deceit that unravels is filled with striking imagery, non-stop suspenseful action and some great tongue-in-cheek Norwegian humor (you might notice a Lillyhammer cameo, if you bothered to watch that halfway-decent show). All said, Headhunters is a bloody thrill ride that’s some of the most damn elegant popcorn entertainment on Netflix Instant. Plus, it’s got the fucking Kingslayer going balls out as a special ops manhunter, for Chrissakes! Almost makes me want to down some lutefisk and hop a jet to Norway.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A-

Tell No One
tell no one

If I had to make a list of the top ten thrillers of the last decade, it would include the 2006 French film Tell No One. That may sound bold, so if you can’t take my word for it, take the word of Sir Michael Caine. Actually, Master Wayne’s Cockney butler listed director Guillame Canet’s film among his all-time top ten—regardless of genre. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that Tell No One is easily one of the best modern movies on Netflix Instant.

michael caine

…says, “Watch this bloody film already!”

Thematically, it falls somewhere between The Fugitive and, I don’t know, The Bridges of Madison County ? I write that hesitantly because romantic movies ain’t really my area of expertise. My idea of a great love story story would be something along the lines of Leaving Las Vegas or Blue Valentine, movies that most normal folk would call more depressing than being locked in a closet with a mime.

blue valentine

“You have to understand, honey. This is my way of making it up to all the guys who sat through The Notebook.”

Don’t get me wrong—this movie is definitely bleak and morbid enough to fit within the not-so friendly confines of this blog series. But part of what makes it so great is that not only is it a masterful thriller, but it’s a masterful thriller that somehow pulls off a love story with enough soul to live up to Otis Redding’s version of “Your Precious Love” (as played during an opening scene).

This rarely occurs in a genre wherein love is almost always used as an ancillary tool, carelessly crapped in to appease the Hollywood formula (did you really give two shits about what happened to Jason Bourne’s girlfriend?). Here, love manifests itself in a way that only makes the quest of our protagonist more thrilling, more suspenseful. The stakes are that much higher simply because of the vicariously personal, life-altering possibilities tied to our man’s mission.

Said man is Alexandre Beck (François Cluzet, aka the French Dustin Hoffman). Beck is a doctor whose wife was murdered eight years ago as they went night-swimming in a lake they used to frequent as children, when their romance began. He’s a good man, but he’s gloomily pensive and hasn’t really moved on from his wife’s death (he visits her parents every year on the anniversary of the occasion). Out of the blue, he gets an email from a woman claiming to be his dead wife. And that’s where an exceedingly complex plot begins to take root. 

hoffman Cluzet

Hoffman (L) in Rain Main, a movie about a guy who counts toothpicks and suffers from autism. Cluzet (R) in the lesser-known Le Raine Man, a movie about a guy who counts cigarettes and suffers from B.O.

There’s not much more that can be said without divulging details of a narrative in which every intricate detail counts. What can be said is that Cluzet’s performance is remarkable, that this film has one of the best chase sequences I can think of, and that I haven’t been so smitten with anything French since I was a 12-year-old schoolboy in love with a Provençal exchange student.

Maybe that’s a good way to end, because Tell No One is about young love, everlasting love and what happens when the two are shattered. (And also what revelations can be found when you start picking up the jagged little pieces.) If you’re sick of me waxing mushy, remember that this is one of the best (and most suspenseful) thrillers you’ll ever see. And even if you don’t trust me, it’s not like you’ll turn down a sniff from My Cocaine.

IMDb: 7.6
Grade: A

-Sam Adams