The years blend together for Nicolas Cage. I’m speaking not as his biographer—for all I know, his every day is a completely distinct National Treasure-style hunt through New Orleans catacombs for a different set of rare dinosaur bones—but as a fan. I’ve followed him through his many periods: the Bruckheimer action hero; the downcast neurotic; and the guy who seems weirdly obsessed with witches and sorcery. But around the time he followed Trespass with Seeking Justice and Seeking Justice with Stolen, I had to gently break my habit of automatically and zestfully pursuing his every project. I’ll still see his movies when I can, hoping he’ll enliven a crummy potboiler, as he sometimes does. But the Nicolas Cage career of just four or five years ago, when the movies might be junky but would almost always receive a proper theatrical release, is over. He’s living in Louisiana and he’s got bills to pay.
Because of Cage’s general eclecticism and obvious talent, his performance in Joe doesn’t come as a surprise, exactly. But context is important: The last Cage performance this great was Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans, back in 2009. He appeared in some junky movies on either side of that one, but those included the committed lunacy of Knowing and his delightful comedic support in Kick-Ass. In 2014, his widest theatrical release was a low-budget reboot of the Left Behind series. That Cage would take time out of his busy schedule appearing in low-rent thrillers filmed near what I picture as his decaying New Orleans mansion to work with David Gordon Green somewhere in Texas comes as a relief.
It helps that Cage is terrific in Joe, playing an ex-con trying his best to go straight. The character leads a crew who surreptitiously (and probably illegally) poisons trees so that a lumber company can cut them down without protest. At this steady but sketchy job, he meets teenager Gary (Tye Sheridan, our new Lucas Black) and takes the boy under his wing. Joe becomes an unlikely mentor to Gary, but the movie doesn’t regard him at a distance, splitting its points of view between the two of them, with a few solo scenes for Gary’s alcoholic, abusive wreck of a father (Gary Poulter, who died after filming ended).
Cage has become known for his actorly outbursts and outré weirdness, but he’s also capable of quiet, subtle character sketching, which is how he fills in Joe, a man who struggles to suppress his instinct for violence. He seems to quiet his demons with vices that seem more controllable, like booze, cigarettes, and prostitutes, and Cage, wearing a mountain-man beard, gives Joe a hulking physicality based more on posture than muscles. The character spends much of the movie being gentle, reasonable, and friendly, yet the threat of violence still looms over Cage’s performance. When Joe does lose control, it’s startling but not necessarily surprising.
What is surprising is how natural these outbursts feel—how unlike shtick they are. Despite the prominence of its star, Joe is very much a David Gordon Green movie, albeit part of his own re-establishing of indie cred following some shaggy, stoner-friendly comedies. In movies like Joe, Prince Avalanche, and his earlier All The Real Girls, Green holds on certain scenes longer than strictly necessary on a narrative level, letting their frayed edges show. This approach works wonders for Cage, who’s as relaxed and natural as he’s been in years when hanging out on the periphery of Green’s scene-setting, making small-talk with a convenience store employee or helping a friend cut meat from a deer carcass. One of the best sequences follows Joe and Gary as they day-drink through a search for a lost dog, climbing over detritus (this is another one of Green’s small towns where industrial decay meets sun-dappled nature), knocking on doors, and bonding. In one exchange, improvised by Cage, Joe explains to Gary how to make a “cool face” (which Cage has since characterized as a “Marlboro Man” face), instructing the boy to look pained, and then “smile on top of the pain.” It plays as a funny throwaway moment; it also defines the movie. Much of Cage’s performance takes place on top of pain.
Academy Awards often go to actors playing people in pain, but voters seem to prefer a more literal variation, one of many, many reasons Nicolas Cage will not be nominated for an Oscar for Joe. Academy Awards are also, in the grand scheme of art, let alone the greater world, almost meaningless. But to their recipients and even nominees, they do mean something: a comeback, a spotlight, better roles, more money. Not all of these things happen (or stick if they do), but at minimum, it’s difficult to beat the collective encouragement and increased visibility of a bunch of Hollywood professionals stating that they think you did a great job, in front of a sizable TV audience. Michael Keaton is great in Birdman, but his expected nomination isn’t just about his work in the film, which is actually fairly restrained on the Keaton scale—it’s about conferring his comeback and congratulating him with his first-ever nomination.
A nomination for Cage, then, would be a more powerful statement than most. Any awards attention for Joe, which remains among his least-seen movies even accounting for his long career and growing number of barely released movies, would send a message to Cage about how great he can be when he applies his talent to a worthwhile film. I don’t think Cage doubts the strength of his work in Joe—he made the rounds promoting it last spring—but he’s also shown himself capable of committing to virtually any role, no matter how schlocky. Of course, Cage also doesn’t necessarily need an industry pep-talk. He has been, on the whole, wildly successful in his career: His mere ability to sign on for several low-grade thrillers per year, presumably at least in part to help pay off various debts, speaks to a level of prosperity a small number of people will ever experience. He shouldn’t need more recognition from a meaningless awards body to keep himself going. But his work in Joe shines regardless of prizes, and the movie has more texture than so many Best Actor showcases. Film fans can tell the difference between Joe and Seeking Justice. But an award or two could help the rest of the world out.