Don’t Write Off Nicolas Cage Just Yet — He’s Great in David Gordon Green’s ‘Joe’

There’s a new Nicolas Cage movie in theaters and on demand this week, and here’s what’s surprising: it is absolutely worth seeing. It’s called Joe, and it’s exactly the kind of modest, elegiac, naturalistic independent film that big-name actors tend to turn to when they’ve wandered too far off the reservation, which Cage has certainly done. In fact, in the nearly 20 years since he won his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas, he’s gone from a marvel to a punch line, fronting laughable vehicles, turning in alternately sleepy and twitchy performances in which he all but waves his paycheck at the camera and cackles. But what’s always been frustrating about Cage is the sense that he was so deliberately slumming it, and that there was still a great actor clawing around in there.

For those of us old enough to remember, it was always a little strange that an actor as idiosyncratic (to put it politely — you could also say just plain fucking weird) as Cage somehow became a Generic Action Movie Hero. In his early films, his oddball singularity was his most striking feature, and his work in films like Valley Girl, Raising Arizona, and Vampire’s Kiss (in which he famously consumed a live cockroach onscreen) had an eccentric unpredictability — you never knew what he was going to do next. He brought a bruised, operatic romanticism to Moonstruck and a howling ferocity to Wild at Heart, and when he tried to play Regular Guys, in films good (Peggy Sue Got Married), bad (Fire Birds), and indifferent (Honeymoon in Vegas), he seemed visibly uncomfortable, like he was sweating it out in a suit that was a size or two too small.

Nicolas Cage in a still from "Face/Off"

But in the mid-‘90s, he turned in a string of performances that made the full scope of his talents clear. He was a perfect noir antihero in John Dahl’s mini-masterpiece Red Rock West, beautifully negotiating the line between “quick-witted” and “not quite as smart as he thinks”; he was an entirely credible and likable Everyman in the charming It Could Happen to You; he brought a gonzo volatility to what could have been a typical heavy in Barbet Schroeder’s underrated Kiss of Death remake. And then there was Leaving Las Vegas, in which he crawled inside the husk of a hopeless alcoholic, and performed an aching death rattle.

He got the Oscar for that film, and then he did a very strange thing: just as it seemed he was finally carving out his niche on screen, he turned his career on its head. The decision to follow that triumph with the 1996 summer action flick The Rock and the 1997 double-punch of Con Air and Face/Off at first seemed like some kind of stunt — the kind of thing James Franco would do now and insist was part of his ongoing “performance art” — but the results were at least interesting; he brought his trademark peculiarity to those roles and gave them some extra bite.

But the more big, dumb blockbusters he did, the less it seemed like Cage was trying things, tinkering with action tropes and monkeying around with his own persona, and the more it seemed like he was just for sale. In the years that followed, there were occasional reminders of what Cage could do, when he chose to make films of wit and intelligence (Adaptation, Matchstick Men, Bringing Out the Dead). But over the last half of the ‘00s, the Cage filmography degenerated into a series of action vehicles — Ghost Rider, Next, Bangkok Dangerous, Drive Angry — each indistinguishable from the last, aside from the degree to which each banjo-eyed, bananas performance seemed to confirm that Cage had veered squarely into the realm of self-parody. Over the past couple of years, even the audiences that made tripe like National Treasure and Gone in Sixty Seconds into hits has vanished; recent titles like Trespass, Stolen, and The Frozen Ground barely played theaters, if at all, placing Cage tremblingly close to the straight-to-VOD has-been likes of Steven Seagal and Wesley Snipes.

Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in David Gordon Green's "Joe"

And yet what’s interesting about Joe is that it’s not a total about-face; if anything, the way director David Gordon Green (himself on the up side of a comeback, following the commercial/stoner comedy dregs of Your Highness and The Sitter) uses Cage, and the way the actor modulates the performance, seems a quiet commentary on who he’s become onscreen, and how to draw upon it. Green puts Cage in a hefty beard and normcore wardrobe, and drops him in a backwoods story that surrounds him with unknowns, non-actors, and Mud’s Tye Sheridan (a young actor seemingly incapable of a false note). But it’s not a simple matter of having Cage strip away the artifice and play it “natural” (whatever that means). Working natural was never part of Cage’s playbook — there’s a performative element to all of his work, good and bad, and even Leaving Las Vegas has moments (like his plaintive yet over-modulated “I’m sorry!” in the midst of being fired) that go over the top.

The key is to harness that power and put it at service of the story (or, as with the magnificently bugged-out Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans, to put him in a story where the insanity makes sense). This is not to say that Cage’s Joe isn’t believable; the low-key way he interacts with his work crew and the quiet, conversational vibe he achieves with Sheridan feel overheard rather than performed. But if we, as an audience that’s seen a nutty Cage movie or two, are aware that he’s holding something back, all the better — because the character is as well. “What keeps me alive is restraint,” Joe shrugs. “Keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people.” There’s a rage inside him, and the film positions Sheridan’s worthless, abusive, drunken father character against him in such a way that Cage’s Joe is like a ticking bomb. And we wait for it to go off.

Cage’s howling, overdone, sheer “NICOLAS CAAAAAAAAGE”-iness has kept him from consideration as one of our best actors for quite some time — along with his inexplicable career choices (we’ll soon see him as “Rayford Steele” in the are-you-fucking-kidding-me “reboot” of Left Behind, the rapture thriller series beloved by the Bible-thumping set). But Joe serves as a keen reminder that there’s still a serious actor lurking within that twitchy, roaring cartoon — it’s just a matter of Cage choosing to be Dr. Jekyll, rather than giving in to Mr. Hyde.

Joe is out today in limited release and on demand.