Nicolas Cage must have the strangest career in Hollywood.
The nephew of filmmaking legend Francis Ford Coppola, Cage has had a career that, over the last three decades, has spanned multiple genres and earned him the highest praise (amongst many accolades, he won an Oscar for his depiction of a depressed alcoholic in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas) and the most merciless ridicule (the ‘bees’ scene in The Wicker Man comes instantly to mind, and that bear suit).
What makes him special is that he’s fully deserving of both.
In this outing, Cage plays the eponymous ex-con, Joe. He is a lonely man who struggles with his vices – he’s at perpetual war, with the best and worst sides of his nature always vying for the upper hand.
Hero or villain?
In his community he is known and respected by some as a hero and derided by others as a troublemaker. He communes with hookers, store workers and policemen – he’s known to them all.
We find Joe running an intriguing enterprise that hires characters on the fringes of society to control the quality of the local woodland, poisoning weaker tree species to clear the land for replanting.
He treats his employees with kindness and respect, but tolerates no slacking. When Gary (Sheridan) – a teenage boy living in poverty with a mute sister, a junkie mother and an abusive alcoholic father – turns up for work, Joe becomes an unlikely role model.
When it later transpires that both of them have incurred the wrath of local gangster Willie (Blevins), their fates become deeply intertwined.
In his element
Cage gives a solid performance in a role that, like Sailor Ripley in Wild at Heart and Ben Sanderson in Leaving Las Vegas, fits him perfectly.Cage belongs in a smog of dubious morality, whiskey, cigarettes and tattoos.
He is also well served here by an excellent supporting cast, many of whom were culled from the local population – in particular Poulter who portrays Gary’s father, the lowlife parasite ‘G-Dawg’.
Poulter, who had no previous acting experience, was offered the role by director David Gordon Green after he was spotted living homeless.
His visceral performance has a powerful authenticity and rivals any of the others. Sadly, Poulter was found dead just two months after the filming was completed.
Also of note is the hugely promising newcomer Tye Sheridan, who with just two previous roles – as Brad Pitt’s son in Terence Mallick’s masterful The Tree of Life and opposite Matthew McConaughey in Mud – has already built an impressive CV.
No doubt it was his role in the latter (a favourite of mine last year) that won him this one; both films share a similar sensibility, existing in a crime-ridden, impoverished American wasteland – belonging to a contemporary sub-genre increasingly referred to as ‘Southern Gothic’.
Let the beast out of its cage
Once or twice, as he is sometimes prone to do, Cage teeters over the edge into his particular brand of theatricality, while the script itself also features, on rare occasions, some clumsy moments that threaten to sensationalise the poverty and violence.
The fact that none of this unravels Green’s impressive tapestry of atmosphere and complex characterisation speaks for the strength of his overall vision.
Dir: David Gordon Green; US crime-drama, 117 mins; Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Heather Kafka, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Gary Poulter
Premiered 21 August