Nicolas Cage on a road to career redemption in this moody southern-fried thriller
Nicolas Cage might be old enough to be your granddad and you’d be forgiven for thinking the one time Oscar-winner’s (Leaving Las Vegas) best days were behind him, because for every glimmer of career re-ignition a la Bad Lieutenant there’s a film like Ghost Rider 3. So it’s great to see Cage back chewing the scenery and snarling the house down as the titular ex-con on a rocky road to redemption in this moody Texan thriller based on the gritty novel by Larry Brown.
“I don’t know who I am but I know what keeps me alive is restraint. Keeps me out of jail. Keeps me from hurting people…” Cage’s alpha male character’s words are ominous as he takes troubled teen Gary (played by rising talent Tye Sheridan, who was Matthew McConaughey’s co-star in Mud) under his wing to join his lumber crew in the woods. It’s tough work for the youngster, providing an escape from his violent and alcoholic father Wade. Known as G-Daawg the boy’s father is an unnerving presence drowning in booze, deliriously breakdancing on sidewalks and lashing out at a son he sees as his property.
In a real-life twist echoing the film’s dark side Gary Poulter – the non-actor recruited from the street to play Sheridan’s abusive father Wade – went back to life on the street. Diagnosed with lung cancer, the drifter, street performer and ex-con was living in a homeless shelter after filming had finished before his dead body was found face down in the shallow part of a lake in Austin. The official cause of death was noted as “accidental drowning with acute ethanol intoxication.” Poulter’s troubled life informs a magnetic performance with Gary’s sister commenting, “Gary’s not even acting. That’s so totally him.”
Seeing glimpses of his own childhood struggle in the 15 year-old, Cage’s character Joe tries to protect the son he never had but shotgun wielding rednecks are circling with scores to settle and with trigger happy cops on his case “he’s simmering now, he’s set to boil, and now he’s going to pop.”
Cage has said he “wanted to find this politically incorrect father figure, filtered through the vessel of an ex-con who maybe isn’t doing the right thing by giving him a beer” rejecting what he sees as “Western Kabuki” for a more internal performance. It’s an exercise in restraint from an actor who once confessed to doing magic mushrooms with his cat and thanks to director David Gordon Green (one of the funny brains behind Eastbound & Down who made stoner comedies Pineapple Express and Your Highness) Cage nails it while Green handles the heavy drama with ease.
We’re in the world of John Boorman’s Deliverance. The classic 1972 film about four city guys who encounter vicious hunters while canoeing down a river featured a famous duelling banjos sequence but Green avoids what he calls the cliché of a “folky, twangy, regional sound” opting instead for a soundtrack fused with an electronic pulse. It’s the rhythm of Joe’s tortured heart driving us towards a shocking but unmissable denouement.