Caged: “Joe” and “On Frozen Ground”

By Niall McArdle

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Okay, it’s very easy to mock Nicolas Cage: the tics, the weird hair, the vocal hiccups, the outre performances, the seemingly endless run of B pictures he makes: shitty action flicks, shitty sci-fi flicks, shitty thrillers.

And of course … the bees!

At least he has a sense of humour about it

You need to set aside all of that when you watch Joe

Set in a crummy backwater Texas town, the film is about how the title character, an ex-con who struggles to hold his violent tendencies in check, takes a vulnerable teen (Tye Sheridan) under his wing. The boy’s real father (Gary Poulter) is a violent drunk.

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If this sounds familiar, well, it’s because you’ve seen variations on this theme many times. You know where most of this film is going to go; it’s a slow-burn Southern Gothic drama complete with abusive dads, kindly hookers, friendly cops, vicious dogs, and eccentric psychopaths.

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What makes it worth watching are the performances by Cage, Sheridan and Poulter. Sheridan gives a naturalistic performance as a boy desperate to protect his mother and sister, and not afraid to stand up to his father even when he knows he’s going to take a beating. Poulter is astonishing as an angry, sad, violent alcoholic. His performance is even more amazing when you consider he isn’t even an actor: he was a homeless man who came around to the film-set looking for work (he died on the streets before the film was released).

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As for Cage, he hasn’t been this restrained in years. Grizzled, bearded, with wounded eyes and a haunted voice, he plays Joe as a decent man fighting hard to keep another side of him at bay.

The film at times has a loose, improvised feel. Director David Gordon Green cast several locals in small roles, so some of the acting is, well, amateurish, but it doesn’t distract too much.

Verdict: Four Poisoned Trees Out of Five

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Cage is just as restrained in The Frozen Ground, a true-life detective drama about the hunt for Alaskan serial killer Robert Hansen, which is also a Con Air reunion for Cage and John Cusack.

At first glance you might think that it should be Cusack playing the tenacious State Trooper and not the serial killer, and yet there he is in glasses, nerdy and sweating, trawling seedy strip bars looking for targets. Cusack is quite good even if the character feels a little under-developed (or is it just that he’s so bland? Perhaps that’s what make serial killers so terrifying: they’re so ordinary.)

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Cage is solid as the State Trooper who leads the investigation, and Vanessa Hudgens is very good as a girl who escapes Hansen’s clutches. Where did this girl come from? I know she was some sort of teen idol or something, but in the last couple of years she’s been taking on serious, seedy parts.

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There are moments of genuine suspense here, and some quite disturbing images, and Hansen’s lair is creepy as heck. Even more disturbing is his relationship with his wife, who of course has no idea about his double-life.

For all that, though, most of the film sadly feels a bit workaday (if a little grungy), in spite of all the hard work by everyone involved. And the story doesn’t allow for Cage and Cusack to get many scenes together, which is unfortunate. Then again, they didn’t share the screen much in Con Air.

Verdict: Three Snowy Landscapes Out Of Five

5 thoughts on “Caged: “Joe” and “On Frozen Ground”

  1. I fancy both of these Niall, based solely on your good reviews! I like Cage in some stuff. When he is good (8MM, Leaving Las Vegas, Lord of War) he’s very good. When he’s bad, ( err… all the rest) he’s truly terrible. I think a lot of it has to do with his choice of wigs. I spend more time looking at his awful syrups (cockney slang; syrup of figs = wigs), than watching him act. Perhaps he makes a better hair decision in these two?
    Cheers mate, Pete.


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