My review of David Gordon Green’s “Joe” with Nic Cage, Tye Sheridan at 2013 Toronto Film Festival

On Tuesday, September 10, 2013 I attended the exciting North American Premiere of Joe at the Toronto International Film Festival. The sold-out screening was held in the elegant 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. It was featured in the Special Presentation section.

Joe is a steamy Southern drama (shot primarily around director/producer David Gordon Green's hometown of Austin, Texas, like his previous film Prince Avalanche) starring Nicolas Cage as the titular Joe Ransom, a rough and tumble leader of a ragtag crew that clears trees for developers. Tye Sheridan plays Gary, a streetwise 15-year-old kid with a drunk for a dad and no coherent male role model to look up to. Gary needs reliable workers, Joe needs a steady job, and the match made in the forest sets into motion a series of classic battles with family members and town troublemakers. Madness ensues, sprinkled with a healthy dose of male bonding and pseudo-parental affection.

If that sounds like the setting and theme for Mud, Sheridan's 2012 tour de force with Matthew McConaughey as unlikely father figure, it's no accident. Sheridan is considered the hottest under-21 male actor in Hollywood, and casting agents have been eager to get him into similar roles. With Joe, this 16-year-old Texas teen becomes the central figure in two of the best coming-of-age stories this decade.   

David Gordon Green is one of our generation's greatest writer/directors, and has been responsible for some of my favorite movies in recent memory. His early career was highlighted by George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003), and Undertow (2004). He exploded onto my radar in 2007 with Snow Angels, which was my #1 Top Pick from that year's Sundance Film Festival and one of my Top Picks of 2007. It remains one of my favorites of the past 10 years. He had great commercial success with Pineapple Express in 2008. More recently, he wrote, directed, and produced Prince Avalanche, which premiered just this year at the Sundance Film Festival. I caught it at SXSW where it made my Top 10.

Here, Green directs and produces but leaves the writing to Gary Hawkins, adapting a novel by Larry Brown. This is the first narrative feature for both Hawkins and Brown, and only the third picture Green has directed from someone else's script. His signature style generally allows for a great degree of creative freedom on the part of his cast. Green often goes in without a script, for the most part, other than basic ideas. The actors then come up with the words. In the case of Joe, with scripted dialogue, that dynamic changed. Still, he allowed his cast members to try their own lines once they had the written takes in the can. What’s eventually seen onscreen is an authentic combination of both.  

Joe arrived in Toronto for its North American Premiere on the heels of an auspicious debut at the Venice Film Festival, where it was nominated for the Golden Lion. Tye Sheridan picked up the Marcello Mastroianni Award for the best young performance of the festival. It’s certainly a tour de force for the teen on only his third big screen outing, easily holding his own against Oscar-winning veteran Nicolas Cage, with nearly 80 features to his credit. Sheridan and Cage are ably supported by a sizable ensemble cast, all clearly passionate for the material, with exceptional performances from Heather Kafka, Sue Rock, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells, Robert J. Johnson, Erin Elizabeth Reed, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Dana Freitag, Ulysses Lopez, and Gary Poulter.       

Green is particularly known for assembling the same team for all his projects, and the characteristic look of a David Gordon Green movie owes much to the camerawork of his longtime Director of Photography Tim Orr. In addition to shooting all of Green's projects, he's responsible for many recent festival Top Picks of mine, including Imaginary Heroes (2004), James Ponsoldt's Off the Black (2006), and last year's Toronto Top 10 Pick Stuck in Love. He is, unquestionably, my favorite living cinematographer. Many others admit in post-screening Q&As that he is a singular influence on their styles.

For this widescreen character study, Orr relies primarily on natural lighting for exterior scenes, allowing the beauty as well as grittiness of the Texas woods to shine through. Interiors are dark with a warm color palette, lending a visually sexy Southern drawl air to the surroundings. He favors slow pans to match the pacing of the narrative. Working in lockstep with Orr is editor Colin Patton, who handled Green's Pineapple Express, The Sitter, and Prince Avalanche. In addition, Patton worked on Borat, Knocked Up, and A Bag of Hammers, one of my Top Picks from the 2011 SXSW Film Festival.

The scores of David Gordon Green's movies are also penned by the same writers. David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain are his go-to composers. In addition to Green's pictures, Wingo scored 2011's Take Shelter, another of my favorite films of the decade. Wingo and McIlwain also teamed up on 2012's Mud, director Jeff Nichols' followup to Take Shelter, which also happened to be the movie that helped put Joe star Tye Sheridan on the map. The soundtrack is punctuated by pulsing sound effects, heightening the tension and underscoring the hair-trigger emotions among the lead characters.

Joe is the quintessential American indie (which could really apply to any David Gordon Green film). The picture runs almost two hours but one would never know. While it’s a slow burn, the narrative is so compelling that time passes quickly. Joe and Gary are everyman and everyboy, with a relationship, regardless of gender, that all viewers have either had or wished they did while growing up. Based on one’s own life, the experience of watching Joe and the blossoming bond between Cage and Sheridan’s characters is either bittersweet or faithfully reminiscent of challenging but joyful times. Either way, audiences will identify with these downhome folks and leave wanting more.    


NOTE: See my photos of the North American Premiere Q&A. I selected Joe for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. The movie was executive produced by Sarah Johnson Redlich, Maria Cestone, Molly Conners, and producer Christopher Woodrow for Worldview Entertainment along with executive producers Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, and Todd J. Labarowski for Dreambridge Films. Producer Lisa Muskat’s Muskat Filmed Properties, longtime Green producing partner, also backed the film along with Green’s own Rough House including executive producers Jody Hill, Danny McBride, and co-producer Alexander Uhlmann. WestEnd Films is handling international sales with CAA as domestic sales rep. Joe has distribution in several territories, including the US through Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions.          

A video of the Q&A is posted below (in three parts) along with a set of stills. I asked Tye a question during the post-screening Q&A, which you'll find beginning at 1:21 of the second part. My question is hard to hear. First I congratulated him on being chosen to work with three of our greatest directors, Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols, and David Gordon Green, in just his first three films. I then asked him what he took away from his experience working with Green. He started to answer, and you'll notice he stops and there's audience laughter. What happened was that he got very excited and animated (as you'll see) talking about how lucky he was to work with these directors, then he says, "I forgot the question." I reminded him that I wanted him to talk about his experience with Green, which is when he started talking again. As you can see, he was gracious and generous with his time and I hope the audience appreciated it as well.    

TIFF13 - Joe - Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan (1 of 3)

Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan for their film Joe at Princess of Wales, Toronto, on Tuesday,…
  • Video Release: September 11, 2013
  • Length: 4.50 min
  • Views: 135

TIFF13 - Joe - Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan (2 of 3)

Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan for their film Joe at Princess of Wales, Toronto, on Tuesday,…
  • Video Release: September 11, 2013
  • Length: 7.03 min
  • Views: 122

TIFF13 - Joe - Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan (3 of 3)

Q&A with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan for their film Joe at Princess of Wales, Toronto, on Tuesday,…
  • Video Release: September 11, 2013
  • Length: 4.65 min
  • Views: 81


Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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