Nic Cage returns to theaters this weekend in a shaggy beard, beat-up workman’s clothes, and with a bottle often by his side in Joe, a film whose premise — a southern ex-con of questionable trustworthiness and potential violence befriends, and becomes a surrogate paternal figure to, a young boy (Tye Sheridan) — recalls not only Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World but, more closely still, last year’s Matthew McConaughey–headlined Mud. Directed by David Gordon Green with the sort of somber rural melancholy he brought to George Washington and Prince Avalanche, it’s a project that finds Cage back in more straightforward dramatic territory after a sharp detour, in the past several years, toward genre efforts and B-movies. In Joe, Cage largely sets aside his signature eccentricity to deliver a sturdy, soulful performance that’s cast in the same mold as McConaughey’s Mud turn. Which is fine, except that Nic Cage is not Matthew McConaughey, and — public perception be damned — he sure as hell doesn’t need a “McConaissance.”
By which I mean — for all its merits, Joe first and foremost comes across as a not-so-subtle attempt to revitalize Cage’s "tarnished" reputation, even though that would involve erasing some of his best actorly qualities. The recent turning point in his career might have been 2006’s The Wicker Man, a remake of the 1973 cult classic in which Cage, confronted by a cult of ritualistic wackos, acts increasingly insane. His performance included a handful of classic outbursts. Those, in turn, became fodder for online ridicule (much of it in the form of memes and GIFs that fixate on his over-the-top acting style) that has continued since, courtesy of more off-the-wall work in films that were either dialed to eleven (Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) or simply subpar cheese (Season of the Witch, Drive Angry, Trespass, Stolen). Before long, Cage was more punch line than respected Oscar-winning leading man.
But now there's Joe. Cage's performance is a soulful, forceful turn that, while benefiting from his larger-than-life aura, is far more muted than much of his recent output. And that makes it one of the actor’s least interesting roles to date. Because Nic Cage’s superstardom is predicated on his idiosyncratic craziness, his loony sense of humor, his hair-trigger volatility. He’s in his element when he’s allowed to be uninhibited. Frazzled and freaky. Screaming-mad and bug-eyed rowdy. Chewing scenery like a man who hasn’t eaten in weeks. This is why Nic Cage made such a vivid impression in Peggy Sue Got Married (a film from which he was almost fired, by his uncle and director Francis Ford Coppola, for employing a bizarre vocal accent), and why he was so great as a cartoonish baby-snatcher in Raising Arizona, a deranged bloodsucker in Vampire’s Kiss (eating a live cockroach!), a lover on the run in Wild at Heart, a goateed thug in Kiss of Death, a long-haired ass-kicker in Con Air, and a maniacal villain in Face/Off.
Nic Cage is a movie star because he’s a one-of-a-kind presence. Which isn’t to say that Cage doesn’t, or can’t, thrive in roles that require more restraint — Leaving Las Vegas deservedly nabbed him a Best Actor Oscar, and he’s superb as a trapped Port Authority police officer in Oliver Stone’s earnest World Trade Center. Rather, it’s that his canon is awash in zanier roles precisely because that’s what he’s so good at. Even when collaborating with illustrious directors, be it as a fatigued paramedic in Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead or a writer’s-block-addled screenwriter in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Cage’s charisma is rooted in his anything-goes instability. No matter the situation, excitement and tension is generated from the possibility that, at any moment, he might come frantically unhinged.
Matthew McConaughey’s career revival, culminating with last month’s Oscar win for Dallas Buyers Club, originated from the notion that the star had not only been coasting on his good looks and charm for too long in subpar romantic comedies, but that he was thus squandering much of the impressive gravity he’d shown early on in films like Lone Star, A Time to Kill, and Amistad. There was more to McConaughey, people thought, than just his chiseled abs and “All right, all right, all right” stoner cool. Cage, on the other hand, is not fundamentally serious and solemn; on the contrary, his trademark energy is of a downed-electrical-wire variety – sometimes calm, often thrashing to and fro. Late in Joe, Cage’s protagonist gets Sheridan’s teen drunk and then has the kid drive him around looking for his lost dog, and for a moment — when describing how the sound of a Zippo lighter flicking open is the way to woo a woman — he reverts to his old self, his eyes going wide and flicking from side to side with boozy insanity. It’s a welcome respite from the rest of the film’s hicksploitation glowering.
Consequently, the knocks against Cage are, at heart, disingenuous — misguided calls for the actor to suppress the very qualities for which he’s most appreciated. (What the actor has referred to as "western Kabuki") No doubt he could stand to make a few less Z-grade VOD clunkers. But whether he’s hypnotically staring down an iguana in the demented Bad Lieutenant or interacting with a vending machine in the ludicrous Seeking Justice, Cage has a maniacal magnetism like no other. That’s why he remains a compelling screen presence, that’s why he’s the king of GIFs, and that’s why Joe is at once his most self-possessed and least exciting turn in years. David Gordon Green’s film casts Cage as a feral canine in a dog-eat-dog world, but what it really does is put a constricting leash around its star’s neck. He may have become something of an online joke for the moment in Wicker Man where he screams about bees, but in one unforgettably wild performance after another, he is the bees, buzzing about with reckless abandon, wreaking hilarious and harrowing destruction in his wake. That’s precisely why I love him.