Thanks to the excellent new indie drama Joe, Nicolas Cage is back, which is odd to write since he never went away. Actually, that was the problem: In the last decade, the Oscar-winning-actor-turned-blockbuster-action-star became a punch line for showing up in too many bad movies. If there was a pitiful-looking genre movie about to be dumped into theaters—The Wicker Man, Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Knowing, Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Trespass, Seeking Justice, Stolen, The Frozen Ground—Cage probably starred in it.
Fans of Cage like myself, who loved him in everything from Raising Arizona to Face/Off to Leaving Las Vegas, have held out hope that the dynamic actor was still somewhere inside all those bad career choices. But by the time the video "Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit" went viral in the fall of 2010, it became clear that the public mostly thought of him as a joke, the compendium of his most over-the-top onscreen moments an epitaph for his loony irrelevance. Also not helping: His massive tax debt and profligate spending, which created the impression that the onetime actor-of-his-generation candidate was picking roles for paychecks, not because of artistic reasons.
Joe won't singlehandedly change people's perception of Cage's tarnished legacy. It might, however, remind them what made him such a talented performer. And to think: It's in a film where he sometimes acts as crazy as ever.
Joe is directed by David Gordon Green, who started out making introspective, small-scale indies like George Washington before transitioning to broad comedies such as The Pineapple Express. Joe takes Green back to artier fare. The same goes for Cage, who at one time was better known for smaller movies such as Wild at Heart and Leaving Las Vegas (which won him the Best Actor Oscar) before he hitched his star to Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganzas like The Rock and Con Air.
In Joe, Cage puts aside the action set pieces for a subdued character study.He plays the titular everyman, a troubled alcoholic who oversees a Texas lumber company's tree-poisoning crew. (It's a dirty business: The company hires Joe's team to surreptitiously kill a section of forest, thereby allowing the company to demonstrate that the area needs to be cleared.) Consumed by anger he struggles to contain and bedeviled by a mysterious past—he spent years in prison, and there's a hint that he has estranged children—Joe becomes friendly with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a homeless teen who starts working for him. Gary sees Joe as an unlikely father figure—by comparison, Gary's own dad is an abusive, selfish degenerate—while Joe sees Gary as a surrogate son and, perhaps, a chance at redemption.
In its depiction of Southern poverty, Joe has the grim violence and weary tenor of a modern-day Western. Cage is cast as the Eastwood-like antihero, a beaten-down soul who's made mistakes but is trying to change his ways. Joe gets into bar fights and sleeps with whores, and yet, he rallies to become Gary's protector and mentor, hoping that this uneducated but goodhearted kid won't end up like him.
One might expect Joe to be portrayed with square-jawed grit, his nobility flashing across his steely eyes. But such stripped-down subtlety has never been Cage's style—though that doesn't mean he turns Joe into another of his bugged-out creations, either. Instead, Cage taps into the internal tension that once energized his greatest performances, that sense that his character could easily explode into fury or sorrow but is trying his best to kept it all in check. His Joe is a man who wants to be left alone, afraid that if the cops look at him funny or Gary's dad tells him to stay away from the boy, he could do something he will regret.
For years, we've marveled at Cage's hair-trigger twitchiness—Roger Ebert once said of Cage, "No one else can project inner trembling so effectively"—but his technique isn't that dissimilar to that old acting advice that suggests that to play drunk, you should act sober. (Rather than flopping all over the stage to exaggerate your intoxication, pull everything back and emphasize how controlled you are, which is how people who are drunk in public actually behave.) Cage has applied this counterintuitive method to his characters' mania for years: the tense, placid surface a feint for the raging undercurrents threatening to rip him apart. What made Raising Arizona's H.I. so funny or Leaving Las Vegas' Ben so tragic is that Cage portrayed them as men trying to convince the world (and themselves) that they're not as screwed up as they really are. That's why "Nicolas Cage Loses His Shit," though hilarious, was reductive: In Cage's best films, his characters lose their shit after they've finally had enough, that explosion coming only after a tremendous amount of self-control finally gave way. His characters are a Nirvana song incarnate—subdued and seething at first, with the volume and wrath pouring out later.
Cage's skill at embodying that inner struggle between restraint and detonation provides Joe with his considerable poignancy—which isn't to say that he can't be funny, too. Despite its milieu of dead-end lives, white-trash grotesquerie and random crime, Joe sometimes flashes a cockeyed, darkly comic sensibility. That's why Cage is so perfect for the character: Green needs an actor whose default setting is stoic nonchalance for, say, a scene in which Joe goes to a neighbor's house and discovers the family laboring to skin a freshly killed deer in its living room. Only Cage's scary-weird intensity would work for the film's next moment, during which Joe grabs a sharp knife and demonstrates exactly where to slice the deer open to make the best steaks. It's quintessential Cage, filled with unpredictable violence that's both shocking and funny because it's delivered with such sincere commitment.
Cage has long preferred the instinctive, visceral response: It's why his summer-movie characters were both compelling and charming. In The Rock or Con Air, his deadpan strangeness in the face of the pyrotechnics around him made the whole idea of big-budget action movies both exhilarating and absurd. (It was as if his low-key, lowlife character from the neo-noir indie Red Rock West had suddenly found himself in an action movie shooting a rocket-launcher.) The films succeeded as pure entertainment and ironic commentaries on action movies, even if Cage's sincerity was so absolute that it was unclear if he was in on the joke.
To be sure, some of his peers didn't find the joke funny. In 1999, Sean Penn infamously dismissed Cage's box-office aspirations by declaring, "Nic Cage is no longer an actor. … Now he's more like a ... performer." It was an insult, but Cage has come to see it as a compliment. "In a way I agree with him," Cage told The Guardian last year. "I would rather be a performer than an actor. Acting to me implies lying. 'He's the greatest actor in the world' is like saying, 'He's the greatest liar in the world.' To perform, in my opinion, is more about emotion."
For better or worse, that's been Cage's M.O. for years now, embracing campy roles with a gonzo immediacy they didn't deserve. Adding to the oddness of his choices, he could be incredibly serious when discussing his reasons for making them. "I like fantasy," he said while promoting 2011's Drive Angry, a nutsy action-thriller where he plays a man who breaks out of hell to get vengeance on those who killed his daughter. "I like horror, science fiction because I can get avant-garde with those performances in those movies. Inherently, I'm able to be abstract and 'modern art,' if you will, because the movies are inherently out there and I can still connect with audiences." (This is the same interview, by the way, where he dubbed his acting style "Nouveau Shamanic," said that Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was a huge influence on his Drive Angry performance and declared that he was initially attracted to the script because "I was going to get my eye shot out.")
Cage was never boring in these trashy genre exercises, but suffering through such dreck to enjoy some of his trademark craziness hardly seemed worth it.
Joe allows that coiled fury to be harnessed in worthwhile material. In recent films, Cage has tended to play demonic or "kooky" individuals whose peculiarity was meant to be cool. (Never forget Ghost Rider's Johnny Blaze with his skull aflame as he unleashes gleefully ridiculous screams of anguish.)By contrast, Joe is a grizzled, miserable loser—his occasional outbursts aren't funny. Akin to Leaving Las Vegas' Ben, drinking himself into an oblivion he long ago accepted, Joe comes across as pathetic, Cage using his manic energy to suggest the vibrant person still there inside that quiet husk of a man.
Watching Joe, I couldn't help but think that the character was a metaphor for Cage: a likeable, erratic presence looking for the right opportunity to pull himself together. Or maybe as a longtime Cage fan, that's the connection I wanted to make. The reviews for Joe have been good, with critics singling out Cage's performance. But I should probably temper my expectation about how much of a comeback the film will be for him. His upcoming slate isn't particularly inspiring, including a possible National Treasure sequel and a remake of the Kirk Cameron religious drama Left Behind. Still, Joe reminds us that the old Cage isn't gone forever. I just hope we don't have to wait so long to see him again.
Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone's critic-at-large. He is the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the author of "FilmCraft: Screenwriting." Follow him on Twitter @timgrierson
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