David Gor­don Green’s film ex­tracts ex­cel­lent value from the th­es­pian depths of Ni­co­las Cage, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

T’S great,” muses David Gor­don Green, the di­rec­tor of the Joe, star­ring Tye Sheri­dan and an im­pres­sively bearded Ni­co­las Cage, “when you can have ac­tors who can find within them depths of re­al­ity, and things that can re­ally trig­ger some­thing in au­di­ences. I mean, that’s why we go to movies, to see peo­ple like th­ese guys that re­ally in­vite us into their lives, to ex­pe­ri­ence char­ac­ters through their eyes. That’s the most re­ward­ing part of a movie like this, get­ting in the ring with ac­tors like Nic and Tye, and tak­ing a story that I have a great his­tory with and bring­ing it to life.”

Cage, of course, has had one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing, and at times be­guil­ing, ca­reers of any ac­tor of his time. Grow­ing up Hol­ly­wood roy­alty as part of the Cop­pola fam­ily, he daz­zled early in films such as Rum­ble Fish and Birdy, then had a truly stun­ning three-year run in 1986-87 with ro­man­tic leads in Peggy Sue Got Mar­ried, Rais­ing Ari­zona and Moon­struck. All that was be­fore he turned 24. Eight years later, he won the Academy Award for best ac­tor for 1995’s Leav­ing Las Ve­gas.

And that’s when things got a lit­tle weird. The past nearly two decades of Cage’s ca­reer have been wildly po­lar­is­ing. He’s be­came one of the big­gest ac­tion stars in the world, much to the cha­grin of many fans who think he has sold out and aban­doned his th­es­pian roots. He’s also ap­peared in some real stinkers. Big-bud­get stinkers, which are the hard­est to for­give, it seems.

It was al­ways a some­what false du­al­ity. Cage turned in ex­cel­lent per­for­mances in films such as John Woo’s 1997 Face/Off, Martin Scors­ese’s 1999 Bring­ing Out the Dead, Spike Jonze’s 2002 Adap­ta­tion and Werner Her­zog’s 2009 The Bad Lieu­tenant: Port of Call New Or­leans. But for many movie­go­ers Cage had be­come the hack who cashed a big cheque for a Na­tional Trea­sure or Ghost Rider film once or twice a year.

For a while there, Green had been ac­cused of turn­ing his back on sen­si­tive in­die drama him­self. Still, he can be for­given for not im­me­di­ately think­ing of Cage when he imag­ined the ti­tle part in Joe. “When­ever I’m read­ing a book,” the di­rec­tor says, “I’m think­ing about the movie. I’ve been that way since I was a lit­tle kid. My first thought, read­ing the Larry Brown book long ago, was: “This is Robert Mitchum.’’ Somebody who re­ally has this sense of wit but mas­culin­ity, and dra­matic abil­ity. But when I started think­ing about the re­al­ity of putting this project to­gether, Nic is the only guy who car­ries those with gusto. Who has the Os­cars to prove it, has the bad-assed ac­tion movies to prove it and has the hi­lar­i­ous come­dies that I can quote to you all day to prove it. So I re­ally wanted that kind of com­pli­cated tex­ture.

“And I re­ally wanted to bring Larry out,” he con­tin­ues. “There is a re­sem­blance. If you look at images of Larry, when Nic grows the beard out, there’s def­i­nitely a very vivid re­sem­blance. And when I started imag­in­ing that, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

As for Cage, he gives a “Who, me?” kind of shrug and passes the credit. “The great news was,” he says, “when I read the script, I knew right away that this was some­thing where I wouldn’t have to act too much. That I could bring what­ever my life ex­pe­ri­ences were from the last cou­ple of years into the role. And it’s in­ter­est­ing, when the movie pre­miered and my wife saw it, she said, ‘Well, that’s you.’ ’’

Cage could be ac­cused of be­ing just a bit disin­gen­u­ous here. It’s never quite as sim­ple as “just be­ing your­self” on cam­era. First of all, it’s damned hard to be your­self in such an ar­ti­fi­cial en­vi­ron­ment — in a sit­u­a­tion that’s not your real life, speak­ing words not your own, with cam­eras and bright lights and cam­eras trained on you and dozens of peo­ple watch­ing. (And know­ing that mil­lions will be watch­ing later.) And sec­ond, what feels “just be­ing your­self” to an ac­tor doesn’t al­ways trans­late to au­di­ences as character in­for­ma­tion on­screen.

Still, there’s cer­tainly a truth at the heart of his point about the script, adapted from a novel by Brown, pos­si­bly the great Amer­i­can south­ern nov­el­ist. When he wants to be, Green is a truly bril­liant di­rec­tor, and he can be bril­liant at ex­tract­ing very nat­u­ral­is­tic per­for­mances from his ac­tors. De­spite his rep­u­ta­tion for over-thetop per­for­mances in re­cent years, Cage trea­sures that sort of role. “One of the things about work­ing with David,” he says, “is that he will in­ter­view his ac­tors. He’ll in­vite lit­tle sto­ries you may re­call from your own life. And he’ll put those in the film, so that you get that feel­ing of spon­tane­ity, that feel­ing of real life, of that ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing, in­stead of some­thing be­ing acted out. Lit­tle mem­o­ries, lit­tle bits and pieces of di­a­logue, lit­tle thoughts or ex­pe­ri­ences that ac­tors can put into their per­for­mances so that you don’t have to act so much.”

The project has deep, long­stand­ing roots in Green’s life. In col­lege his film pro­fes­sor, Gary Hawkins, turned him on to Brown’s nov­els, mostly set in Mis­sis­sippi and all tough, gritty, grip­ping sto­ries with un­for­get­table char­ac­ters, many of them men strug­gling with images of mas­culin­ity. Green was trans­fixed. He went on to be­gin his ca­reer with crit­i­cally lauded in­die clas­sics like George Wash­ing­ton and All the Real Girls be­fore re­turn­ing to work on Hawkins’ 2002 award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary about the au­thor, The Rough South of Larry Brown.

When Brown died sud­denly in 2004 from an ap­par­ent heart at­tack, Hawkins de­cided to adapt his novel Joe as a screen­play, think­ing it was at once Brown’s most per­sonal work, the work that Hawkins him­self most re­sponded to, and the most cin­e­matic of the nov­els. He couldn’t get any in­ter­est from the in­dus­try. Nine years later, he was hav­ing an idle con­ver­sa­tion with Green, who had since par­layed his crit­i­cal ac­claim into big-bud­get Hol­ly­wood films ( Pineap­ple Ex­press, The Sit­ter) and leg­endary tele­vi­sion com­edy sta­tus ( East­bound & Down). Green asked his old pro­fes­sor if he had any­thing he should read and re­ceived, in re­turn, the script for Joe.

“When I read the script,” Green re­mem­bers, “it struck me as a great con­tem­po­rary western, a genre I’ve al­ways been drawn to and that I love. It’s a story very dis­tant from me, but it’s some­thing that re­ally res­onated with me. I felt re­ally fa­mil­iar with this world, even though I can’t quite say I grew up in the squalor of Tye’s character, and I can’t quite say I’m as bad-assed and mas­cu­line as Nic’s character. But they’re peo­ple I look up to, and I won­der about. Even the hor­rific char­ac­ters, or some of the quirkier char­ac­ters, are peo­ple I feel like, in my strange life, I’ve met along the way. And I love to ex­plore, and take a few steps in their shoes.”

Green had a few tricks up his sleeve to ground the film in the world in which it’s set. “I re­mem­ber when Nic came to town,” he re­calls. “We were talk­ing about how to flesh out the cast. I re­ally wanted it to have a raw authenticity and not a Hol­ly­wood pol­ish. We were go­ing to make sure th­ese char­ac­ters felt like they were of a real world, and that we were drop­ping in on guys who knew how to do this labour, and how to do th­ese voices of ei­ther po­etry or hor­ror, de­pend­ing on who we were look­ing at. We cast it, out­side of Nic, with all Tex­ans. It was all shot in and around Austin, and we’d go down­town in the morn­ing and there’d be a con­struc­tion fore­man look­ing for guys for the job, and some peo­ple with land­scap­ing needs look­ing for some­one for their job, and then there we were look­ing for some peo­ple for our job.”

But filling one spe­cific part was a nag­ging chal­lenge, says Green: “I wanted somebody who felt sad, in a way, and had a depth and dark­ness be­hind his eyes rather than a guy who

Os­car win­ner and ac­tion star Ni­co­las Cage

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