Joe has been described as a ‘return to form’ for Nicolas Cage. Though most critics are praising his acting chops, it can also be understood as an acknowledgement of his ability to ‘do crazy’ terrifyingly well. Cage’s latest foray into crazy is certainly one of substance, and, luckily, every one of the leading performances here follows suit. With equally skilled direction, much of this unique and rattling picture hits the mark dead on; perhaps, then, it’s the basis of the novel that predated it that stunts this otherwise complex story of masculinity in crisis.
The film can confidently claim its success as a mainstream picture, carefully toeing a line between box-office thriller and arthouse meditation, allowing for widely appreciable receipt which I don’t doubt it will get. It is more complex than its trailer betrays; though its the spine that allows for wider exploration, at its centre it is not about Joe being a father figure to an abused boy (Gary, played by an exceptional Tye Sheridan,) and/or very occasionally shot at, which is what lured most people in. The essence of the film is an examination of whether vices and violence preclude one from being a ‘good person’. Joe’s tendency to violence is the focus of this conflict between good-or-not, and his vices facilitate both his restraint and his violence. The foregrounding of prostitution, alcoholism and smoking, however, present ambiguous messages to the audience, and a series of morality-chicken-and-morality-egg considerations.
The big question at its heart is one of good, evil and human nature; how and why, and indeed, is Joe a good man? Will Gary be?
I’m assuming it was purposeful that the eponymous character was constantly in conflict with the audience; Joe’s behaviour bounces between repulsive, parental and adolescent. Without any comic relief it was difficult to feel identification with someone so inconsistent; though, of course, it rang true. The parallel between Joe and Gary was made explicit initially, but generally left alone throughout to allow for an assumed connection between them, and a comment on neglect, abuse and the cause and effect of both in adulthood. The ties to class here were interesting; the film is centered entirely on working and under-class characters, and very much focused on the ravages of alcoholism and poverty within their lives. The characters who did not drink (at least on-screen) were happy and friendly in the main, with a great sense of camaraderie, compassion and connection as a community. These were incredibly interesting characters, who could certainly have given the film even more depth. Unfortunately, there was no attempt at a wider comment on the economic situation or history of anyone; this was not a radically-minded film, but one which, as usual, seemed to leave most of the characters’ traits, behaviours and habitats to be assumed as an innate part of their ‘bad’ character.
Ultimately, the film is about what it means to ‘be a man’, and it’s as layered, frustrating and contradictory as that sounds. Thematically, Joe is intriguing; an archetypal story of good and evil, implicitly reflecting on class and identity and surreptitiously providing insight into the human self and our beliefs about those selves. Though, once again, an essentialist ideology about ‘being a man’ pervades this work; Joe does not challenge prevailing stereotypes about masculinity, but rather resigns itself to them. It provides more insight into the chronic clichés of classical characterization than it does into humanity or our potential to challenge the failures of those clichés.
For all the complexity and nuance, stereotypes of masculinity are glaringly present. Though the connection between them is implied, it is unclear whether we are supposed to understand Joe as having an abusive upbringing similar to Gary’s. Without allusion to it, Joe’s obsession with violence and protection of the innocent (which, naturally, includes women, as long as they will have sex with him) appears to come from his oh-so-manliness; one so tied to his base desires as a human that in order not to kill someone a brothel pit-stop, facilitated by his dog killing their guard dog so he can get in for a quick blow-job, is necessary, before he can finally soothe his roaring male-ness under the weight of a tank of whiskey and a few beers.
He then proceeds to let a first-time-drunk Gary drive him around. Granted, there is a mild comedy and a deep tenderness to the boys’ road trip to find Joe’s dog (who, incidentally, is female…) and in the context of their connection as damaged children, it works. The derailment of Joe as a father figure is successfully implied, and in addition he loses his endearing nature and it almost signals his end; not only in the narrative but also as a champion-able protagonist.
This also provides insight into whether or not the film really provides a critical edge when it comes to power relations that aren’t between men. The exploration of masculine violence is constant, but reads as more of a fascination than a critical examination of how violence is used. Desperate attempts at retaining unequal power imbalance, an unstable ego, and a facilitation of greed at others’ expense are all present in the film; all complex portrayals of the roots of violence. These subtle hints at the nature of violent relationships are commendable, and remain foregrounded throughout, but the focus of the narrative, and thus its power, remains with the enacters of violence, and not those abused. There is no unease in Joe’s visits to the brothel and the general use of prostitutes, and his relationship with Connie, while illuminating both his gentleness and his rejection of intimacy, results in a pretty flat plot strand. There were numerous females present throughout, though none were developed and all were passive (except the wonderful woman whose birthday it was – we never found out if anyone made her a cake.) All of these gender dynamics could have allowed for a greater determination of what exactly is meant and felt by ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’, and the power relations between the two. The opportunities having been lost, they left only underwritten female characters in their wake and yet another cinematic foregrounding of woman-as-commodity.
The character of Gary was a blank slate, and rightly so; lost but full and played perfectly by Sheridan, his rescue of his sister was a triumphant and satisfying end to his arc, but not hers. It was yet another conflict in message, mired in imbalances that were perhaps lost in favour of the exciting climax shootout. For a film that was so tender, well-played and -directed, the shortcomings of Joe in its themes about masculinity, class and violence were frustrating. Joe’s final showdown with his nemesis could perhaps be read as a comment on the futility of violence, and that if ‘good’ men succumb to it, they will be destroyed, but it also provided a conveniently quick and neat ending. As a comment on masculinity, Joe is not a radically transformative one, and while insightful in many ways regarding the expectations and pressures on young boys to be stereotypically (destructively) masculine, it speaks more about vice and its relationship with violence.
As a meditation on abuse and an exploration of what it means to be a good person, especially what it means to misunderstand and abuse oneself whilst attempting to heal, it is full of contradictory but fascinating messages. And ultimately, these contradictions may ring true as a reflection of the complexity involved in human desire, and the lottery of life. The last line of the film is “Joe was a good man…”. People are not as simple as good and evil, and I hope that audience will come away understanding that; I have faith that this was Joe’s aim.