These days, you can usually divide the performances of Nicolas Cage into one of two categories. He's either outright bad, in that lazy Con Air kind of way, mumbling through his lines and defaulting to sullen action-star mode. Or—and this is much more fun, obviously—he's good bad, offering the kind of bellowing, cartoon-junkie intensity that seems readymade for YouTube encapsulation. (The Wicker Man remake may be awful, but because of its star and his lunatic line readings, it's rarely boring.) Every once in a while, though, Cage does the unthinkable and offers a performance that requires neither apologies nor camp appreciation. For two hours or so, he becomes a magnetic actor again, the same vibrant presence who wowed audiences with his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. He is, in these rare instances, just plain good.
That Cage, the serious and committed one, shows up for work again in Joe (Grade: B), a ramshackle Southern drama about poverty, dead-end lives, and the day-to-day difficulty of keeping your hands clean in a dirty world. Seriously bulked up, with a scraggly grey beard and tattoos that snake across his torso, Cage plays Joe, a hardened hard-drinker in rural Mississippi. The leader of a questionably legal work force, a group of men who poison healthy trees so the lumber company can come through and knock them down, Joe is a man who's made an uneasy peace with his short temper. It probably goes without saying that this reformed rage-aholic will slip—if only momentarily—over the edge, his repressed anger coming to a renewed boil. But what's kind of remarkable about Cage's performance, given his usual tendency to go as far over the top as possible, is the way the actor downplays even the occasional surge of violent emotion. It's a movie about restraint, which is exactly what its star demonstrates throughout.
To put it indelicately, Cage gives a shit for once, and so too does his director, that reborn poet of Southern Gothic romanticism, David Gordon Green. The Sundance favorite Prince Avalanche marked a return to form for the filmmaker, who spent much of the last half-decade on Hollywood stoner-comedy duty. Joe is another callback to Green's auspicious youth, a mostly DIY effort from an artist who's now earned the reputation and industry clout to get actors like Nicolas Cage to trek out into the wilderness with him. Vintage Greenisms abound: There's ample footage of day laborers working up a sweat in the great outdoors, some dreamy slow-motion set to rhapsodic voice-over, and several presumably improvised scenes of the characters just shooting the shit. (In what feels decidedly like an ad lib, Cage demonstrates the invaluable skill of "smiling through pain.") Joe is never more alive than when shifting to the work crew, which is mostly populated by fantastic nonprofessional actors. Nearly all of the supporting characters, in fact, are played by unknowns.
There's also a plot, which only occasionally intrudes on the film's refreshingly loose structure. Just as he did in Mud, by Green friend/colleague Jeff Nichols, Tye Sheridan plays a troubled teenage boy who falls under the sway of an outlaw mentor figure with a three-letter name. The similarities don't end there: Like the earlier film, Joe is most compelling when simply sketching in the details of its impoverished milieu; both movies fare better as environmental portraits than crime flicks. The minute Peter Sarsgaard lookalike Ronnie Gene Blevins shows up, as a facially scarred degenerate starting trouble with both Cage and his surrogate son, it's very obvious where Joe is headed. I wish the film were less predictable, with a jagged narrative to match its editing rhythms, but there's a wealth of life at both its center and in its margins. For Green and Cage, caring pays off.
Great effort was also clearly expended on Under The Skin (Grade: B), Jonathan Glazer's first movie since 2004's Birth. The sheer weirdness of this sci-fi tone poem has been slightly overstated. The film is "abstract," when it is at all, in very concrete ways—usually to demonstrate the more outlandish aspects of its protagonist's "lifestyle." Scarlett Johansson, in a bravely blank performance, plays an alien visitor on the prowl in Scotland, where she drives around in a white van, seducing mostly inebriated men and taking them back to…her lair? Her ship? (That much isn't entirely clear.) Repetitive but oddly intoxicating, Under The Skin left a much deeper mark—on this, our final day at TIFF—than Real (Grade: C), Kiyoshi Kurosawa's unexpectedly dopey hodgepodge of every "what's real/what's a dream?" genre movie that springs to mind. The best that can be said for the film is it could add a new expression to the lexicon. Why say something "jumped the shark" when you can ask when it officially "unleashed the plesiosaur"?