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Nicolas Cage and David Gordon Green Work Together to Find Redemption With ‘Joe’

Nic Cage
Adam Berry, Getty Images

There are some actors that I just inexplicably root for. I have no idea what this means or why I do this, but the best way I can explain it is that it’s almost as if the actor is a sports team and I want that actor to win. But at least with sports, there’s regional pride to fuel a sometimes unhealthy rooting interest in what are essentially strangers. There’s really no explanation as to why I feel this with an actor like Nicolas Cage. But, yet, I do.

The first movie I remember seeing Nicolas Cage was in ‘Peggy Sue Got Married.’ (The first movie I actually saw him in was ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ but didn’t realize this until years later.) In ‘Peggy Sue Got Married,’ Cage plays opposite Kathleen Turner in what is essentially a time-travel movie for those who loved ‘Somewhere in Time’ but found ‘Back to the Future’ too action packed. (Basically I’m talking about my mom, who took me to see ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’ after promising me it would be just like ‘Back to the Future.’) Cage played Charles Bodell, a high school student (and, also, his older adult self) with a nasal voice who liked singing in doo-wop groups with a young Jim Carrey.

(As an aside, the only time I interviewed Cage, I asked him why he’s never been in another movie with Jim Carrey. He answered by telling me that the two “don’t really speak anymore” and that he was offered the Harry Dunne character in ‘Dumb and Dumber,’ but passed to do ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ instead. The fact that this was at all possible is unbelievably fascinating.)

The year after, he starred in the Coen brothers’ ‘Raising Arizona,’ a movie I loved even when I was 12-years-old, but didn’t fully grasp until years later. Cage even had a way of taking movies like ‘Honeymoon in Vegas’ – a movie that had no business being anything other than a dumb romantic comedy – and making them interesting. Within the last month, I heard someone quote “airport jail.”

Somewhere along the line, Cage’s name started to become a bit of a punchline. But not in the usual way when comedians reference a famous person’s sagging carrier – but more that Cage became known for taking pretty much any role and those roles usually involved at least a few seconds that would be popular on the Internet. (The bee scene from ‘The Wicker Man’ is the most famous example.) Looking back at Cage’s filmography, this seemed to all start with ‘Con Air.’ A case could be made for ‘The Rock’ – and both ‘The Rock’ and ‘Con Air’ are both dumb action movies that are without question entertaining – but ‘The Rock’ is a fairly straightforward movie, while ‘Con Air’ involves a now-famous line about a bunny. Regardless, I hated that Cage became a punchline. (Admittedly, I have laughed at the bee scene.)

It was no surprise to anyone when Cage won an Oscar – pre-‘Con Air’ — for 1995’s ‘Leaving Las Vegas.’ If Cage won an Oscar today, it would be considered shocking. Hopefully a movie like this week’s new release, ‘Joe,’ would ease that hypothetical shock, at least just a little bit.

In ‘Joe,’ (a movie I saw back at the Toronto International Film Festival) Cage plays the title character of Joe Ransom: a man who poisons trees for a living and has a nasty reputation for being quite the rapscallion around town – a man who is always in trouble with either the law or local crime lords or, most often, both.

Joe eventually befriends a boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), coming to act as a surrogate father for the kid, whose real father is a violent alcoholic. ‘Joe’ is Cage’s best work in many, many years. It’s almost acts as a big middle finger to anyone who has any doubts that Cage can’t act in anything that’s not a dumb ‘Ghost Rider’ movie.

It’s kind of fitting that Cage would find at least a bit of redemption in a movie directed by David Gordon Green. Kind of like Cage, Green is a director I root for. Green made his bones on a number of well-regarded indie films like ‘George Washington’ and ‘Snow Angels,’ then found mass success when he directed 2008’s ‘Pineapple Express.’

Green would drift away from indie films, eventually directing the misunderstood ‘Your Highness’ – a film he referred to as his “baby” when I spoke to him in 2013 – to the box office bomb, ‘The Sitter,’ a movie Green admits sounded like a lot of fun after the stress of making ‘Your Highness.’

It’s almost like Green is going through a rebirth of sorts lately, too, even though there’s very little chance he’d admit to that. (And Green has so much goodwill as a director, one movie like ‘The Sitter’ isn’t going to tarnish his reputation.) After ‘The Sitter,’ Green went back to his roots and directed 2013’s delightful, almost-secret small-scale production of ‘Prince Avalanche,’ starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch. And, now, he follows that up by teaming with Nicolas Cage, of all people, for ‘Joe.’

It’s likely that ‘Joe’ will kind of just come and go in theaters, which is a shame. Perhaps it will find a life somewhere once it pops up on cable or Netflix. It might appear like the story of a tree poisoner who befriends a young boy, but it’s really the story of two men who have something to prove.

Mike Ryan is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.

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