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If You Think Nicolas Cage Is a Walking, Talking Meme, Go See ‘Joe’

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Turning the actor's screaming, flaming skull from the Ghost Rider trailer into an animated GIF is a lot easier than considering if a film is worth a damn.

Look, Nicolas Cage is crazy. So are most brilliant actors. To prepare for The Crucible, Daniel Day-Lewis built his own log cabin. Tilda Swinton admits that she once went five years without speaking. Harrison Ford almost hit me with a golf cart while donutting around the rocky plains of New Mexico (it seemed pretty crazy at the time). Cage is equally batty, a personality primed to mold itself into any dot on the emotional spectrum. If the guy's mental state was stabilized, we'd never have seen him bounce between the criminal romantic in Raising Arizona, the brooding macho man in Con Air, or Adaptation's neurotic creative.

But with the advent of YouTube, Twitter, Tumblr, and the tools for meme-ification, Cage's on-screen dynamism has been distilled to “LOL” moments. Crazed characterizations are plucked from context and scrambled into “Cagiest Cage Moment” montages. Daring choices that go awry — see: the ill-fated Wicker Man remake and its bee attacks — can never creep into the shadows, forever solidified in the Internet's memory. Bravado and dramatic intensity make great movies, but not great viral videos. A screenshot of Cage giving crazy eyes in Vampire's Kiss — well that just says everything an emoji can't.

The problem with the well-intentioned ribbing of Cage's craziness is that it's bled into consideration for his contemporary work. This week's Joe, the latest film from director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Pineapple Express), is easily one the actor's finest performances. Gruff, mangy, comical, and violent, Cage's blue collar Southern gent strips down his persona and demands everything underneath. With all sides of his crazy on display, Joe is all too easy to dismiss.

The web's pop culture microcourses have made us lazy. Turning the actor's screaming, flaming skull from the Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance trailer into an animated GIF is a lot easier than considering if a film is worth a damn (unexpectedly, the superhero sequel was). When it comes to Cage, it's not entirely on the audience; after serious financial troubles, the actor found himself; latching on to any cheapy action thriller that paid. Cage followed the mega-sized National Treasure series, Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call, and a wry, ass-kicking role in Kick-Ass with movies you didn't see, like Trespass and Stolen. Without any convincing evidence to suggest otherwise, Cage's wacky persona engulfed his talents.

"I had been waiting for the better part of a year to find a script where I could be as emotionally naked as possible,” Cage told NPR during his press tour for Joe. “I'd done several movies where I was experimenting more with performance style and operatic kind of style, but now I wanted to go into almost like Dogme style of film performance, where I didn't have to think too much about it and I could just be, and take my memories or my past experiences and flood them into a character that would be the right vessel for it.”

That's what Green and writer Gary Hawkins (adapting from a novel by Larry Brown) delivered him. The film follows the title character as he ambles through existence, managing an under-the-table fleet of dayworkers, assisting the locals of backwoods town, spending afternoons in the beds of prostitutes, and sipping beer into the night while soaking in local news. Joe is like if Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, and the writers of Napoleon Dynamite decided to write a screenplay together (and let it be known, this writer can't stand Napoleon Dynamite). Unlike most of his past collaborators, Green asks Cage to be an observer. He's still ferocious, a ticking time bomb, but he knows his place in the world better than anyone in his dilapidated community.

Joe's introduction to Gary (Tree of Life and Mud star Tye Sheridan) compounds his reserved nature. We now he'll burst when confronted by the extremes of the teenage boy's life. Gary comes to Joe looking for work; His dad's a raging alcoholic, his mom's addicted to meth, his kid sister doesn't speak, and no one's making any money to survive. So it's up to him. Joe's hesitant to open himself up to a stranger, but he can't help but see himself in the ambitious youngster. Before too long, Gary is flying under Joe's wings. Their bonding is ethereal, picturesque father/son outings of driving truck, sneaking beers, and waxing poetic on the magic of picking up women. Joe is damaged goods, but with Gary he's redeemed of whatever shady past haunts him. He's normal. He's not very Nic Cage.

Green doesn't suffocate Cage's inherent comedic talents (this is the guy who directed Your Highness, after all). A scene where Joe demonstrates the proper way to skin road kill deer or another where the hometown hero chit chats with gas station regulars (“You still doing mixed martial arts?” asks Joe. “Yeeeeah,” says some gangly kid) would be like instant coffee for meme baristas if they weren't so tightly woven into Green's slow-burn tapestry. To feel Joe's warmth and sense of humor is to feel his pain. A wise woman once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” When Joe's world starts collapsing on itself, when time runs out for Gary, that's when “crazy” Cage unspools as a dangerous version his character that bubbled under the surface.

Anything can happen when Nicolas Cage is the driver's seat of a film. He's a stunt man of drama, where the broken limbs and third degree burns arrive in the form of Internet ridicule. Audiences want sterilization in their leading men, not experimental, “operatic” performance styles. So it's not surprise that after a string of successes, Cage became the butt of jokes. Going to extremes means not always sticking the landing. Knowing his actor is willing, Green crafts Joe around Cage's fearlessness. He's not the star, he's the test subject. Green's savage world, full of corrupt law enforcers, murderous drunks, and vengeful scum looking for a quick buck, tows Joe about. It's a brilliant performance that can't wash away years of Nicolas Cage supercuts, but can at least transport the actor to a time when people wouldn't bother making one.

Joe is out now in select theaters and available to rent on iTunes/VOD.

Image via Studio System News.