TIFF Preview: Will “Joe” be a comeback for Nicolas Cage?

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One of late-summer’s most pleasant films is David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche,” and the director brings a new film, “Joe,” to TIFF. It feels like this could be the role Nicolas Cage has been waiting for.

Nicolas Cage stars as a hard-living ex-con who becomes friend and protector for a hard-luck kid (Tye Sheridan; “The Tree of Life,” “Mud”), in this contemporary Southern gothic tale from acclaimed filmmaker David Gordon Green (“George Washington,” “All the Real Girls”).

The men who populate David Gordon Green’s latest film, “Joe,” have known prison, and sudden rage, and thrashings from their daddies. We see little of this in the film, but Green finds simple, graceful ways to show the marks left by a lifetime of violence. Like his earlier films “All the Real Girls” and “Undertow,” Joe crafts elevated drama from the raw material of America’s Southern poor.

Based on Larry Brown’s acclaimed novel, the film tells the story of a kind-hearted excon (Nicolas Cage), who oversees a group of Mississippi men who clear trees for a large lumber company. When Gary (Tye Sheridan), a determined fifteen-year-old, shows up looking for work, Joe is hesitant to turn him away. After taking him on as part of the crew, Joe soon becomes a father figure. It’s an easy role to fill, since Gary’s own father is a brutal alcoholic. In a desperate attempt to escape his troubled household, Gary runs away from his family, looking to Joe for refuge. But Joe is no simple Samaritan. Recently released from prison, and with his own history of erratic acts, he makes for an unpredictable protector. And yet the two see something in each other, some core of dignity that might survive their ragged lives.

As Joe, Cage delivers one of his best performances in a storied career. He is as compelling as he is in his most outrageous roles, but achieves the effect with far more restraint here. And, as Gary, Sheridan, who followed “The Tree of Life” with Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” and now this film, continues to prove himself one of America’s most subtle young actors.

Text by Cameron Bailey; photo courtesy of TIFF