‘Joe’ – Nicholas Cage reminds us – and himself – he really is a fine actor

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

After slumming for years in crud like “Ghost Rider” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” Nicolas Cage has decided to remind himself — and all of us — that, yes, he can act, That, in fact, he’s a helluva an actor when he puts his mind to it.

His new movie “Joe” is so unexpectedly good it made me want to go back and look at all of Cage’s previous movies. In it, he plays an ex-con, scraping together a kind of life in hard-scrabble rural Texas.

For money, he runs a crew whose job is to go around poisoning trees so a lumber company can come in and plant new ones. For everything else, he drinks hard, visits the local whorehouse, and tries — mightily — to keep his violent temper in check.

Joe just doesn’t want to be messed with; however, when a good kid (Tye Sheridan) in a bad situation (wraith-like mom, bad-ass, drunken dad) comes along, he finds himself messing in the kid’s life.

Reluctantly, that is. Joe doesn’t want to be anybody’s hero or mentor or father figure. But he cares about this kid, and he lets this decent, responsible 15-year-old get to him.

The director is David Gordon Green, once upon a time, The Next Big Thing, who somehow missed his turn. “Joe” is a truly fine film, compact, smart and daring. And, good as everyone is, the picture hinges on Cage, who does not disappoint.

Probably my favorite Cage performance is his double-act in “Adaptation,” opposite Meryl Streep. If you don’t know that film, check it out now.

Here are a few other ideas:

“Leaving Las Vegas”

Think of it as “Viva Las Vegas” on two dozen downers and a case of Jack Black. Ok, imagine Elvis and Ann-Margret as Charles Bukowski might’ve written them and you have Cage and Elisabeth Shue in Mike Figgis’s film. It’s “The Lost weekend” as lifestyle and death trip.

Cage won an Oscar for his portrayal of an alcoholic Hollywood writer who pockets his severance check and heads to Vegas to drink himself to death. Literally. Shue is a hooker who gets hooked on Cage’s devil-may-care despair. She’s terrific (and Oscar-nominated), but the movie belongs to Cage whose fierce, uncompromising performance is as serious as a hangover and as jittery as the shakes. You can practically smell the stale reek of his booze-soaked breath. He leaves you feeling unclean — and sober.

“Vampire’s Kiss”

A vampire satire with real bite. Underneath its fang-and-stake trappings, the movie is actually a fable about living in the Big Apple. How living in New York can suck you dry and, in the process, turn you into a bloodsucker yourself.

Cage is the very model of a modern Manhattanite — a literary agent with an apartment in Chelsea and twice-a-week therapy sessions. He falls for a mysterious beauty, played by “Flashdance’s” Jennifer Beal, whose suck-neck approach to sex and aversion to daylight get him wondering if she’s a vampire. Worse, he comes to believe she’s turned him into one, too.

That’s the picture’s weirdly engaging premise: Is Cage actually becoming one of the undead or is it a stress-induced psychotic breakdown? Is it all in his head or in his bloodstream? And in case you’re wondering, yes, this is the one in which Cage actually eats a cockroach. Man, the lengths some actors will go to for their art.

“Raising Arizona”

Even the camera angles are funny in this hell-raising comedy from the Coen Brothers. In this rambunctious and ultimately, rather sweet live-action Looney Tunes cartoon, Cage and Holly Hunter play a childless couple who opt for abduction over adoption when they read that Nathan Arizona, the proud new father of quintuplets, has said “he has one more than he can handle.”

Well, these two dunderheads take him literally, and the hot baby turns into a hot potato, passed around among the supporting cast (including Coen regulars, John Goodman and Frances McDormand).

Ultimately, it turns into a brilliant and frenetic chase film that threatens, at times, to chase its own tail. But by then, the picture has built up enough wacko momentum to carry it past any weaker moments. Yes, the Coens are techno-brat showoffs, but when the show is this good, who cares?

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

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