The following are Nicolas Cage’s acting credits, in chronological order, from the summer of 2010 to the present: The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Season Of The Witch, Drive Angry, Trespass, Seeking Justice, Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance, Stolen, The Croods, and The Frozen Ground. So that’s one failed Jerry Bruckheimer cash-in, one sequel to a movie nobody liked, one 3-D gearhead spectacle that tanked, two mid-budgeted action movies and a thriller that barely saw theaters, and an animated hit in which his voice work, while excellent, figured not even marginally into its success. In fallow periods such as these, Cage becomes a favored critical whipping boy, hamming his way through roles that seem neither carefully selected nor deserving of an ounce of commitment on his part.
And then he shows you why he’s one of the greatest actors on earth.
Underestimating Nicolas Cage can be habit-forming, but when he’s given a role like the soulful, shit-kicking troublemaker he plays in David Gordon Green’s Joe, he makes it seem like nobody else could have pulled it off. He’s never been the type to “disappear” in a role, so he would never make sense as a character actor or a supporting player who isn’t explicitly tasked with upstaging the leads. So like a lot of Cage performances, his work as Joe does have a larger-than-life quality, and the other characters—and the actors who play them—are in orbit around his big, bright shining star. Yet if it’s possible to imagine, Cage brings a self-effacing quality to Joe, a difficult man with an ugly past and unstable present who’s nonetheless trying to better himself and earn some goodwill from the people who care about him.
Returning to a locale similar to the tough, backwoods Georgia of his underrated 2004 drama Undertow, Green sets the film in a poor Texas town gripped by violence and alcoholism. Though given to both—and on a friendly basis with the cops who pay him repeated visits—Joe is what counts for a success story, managing a dozen or so day-wagers who poison trees on a lot that needs clearing. His relationship with an abused teenager (Tye Sheridan, also superb) from a dirt-poor, nomadic family is the soft heart of a film rife with hardship, brutality, and death. In truth, Joe is too rife with hardship, brutality, and death: There’s a point at which it crosses the line into inadvertent hicksploitation, with cartoonish blood feuds, forced prostitution, dogfighting, and other Southern-fried horrors. But Cage (and Sheridan) does what he can to bring it down to earth.
Two other movies I saw over the last couple of days were similarly elevated by unexpected performances, starting with Tsai Ming-liang’s astonishing Stray Dogs, perhaps my favorite movie of the festival. The actor Lee Kang-sheng has been Tsai’s collaborator and muse throughout his entire career, but his Buster Keaton face, so perfectly in keeping with the slow reveal of Tsai films like The River and What Time Is It There?, cracks like I’ve never seen before here. Poverty has long been a condition of the director’s work, from the crumbling apartment that provides The Hole with its title to the incomplete, abandoned, water-logged building that squatters call home in I Don’t Want To Sleep Alone. But never has Tsai addressed poverty as directly and emotionally as he does in Stray Dogs, and the choice to do so now, after many more distanced treatments of alienation in Taipei, is especially bracing.
As with his previous films, Tsai shoots in long takes from a fixed camera position—though he makes one startling exception here—and it’s always a pleasure just to live in those frames for a while. We become so accustomed to scenes cut to hash that it’s a relief to spend time contemplating each shot and puzzling over what Tsai is showing us and why. With each successive shot in Stray Dogs, he shows us a devastating portrait of a family living hand-to-mouth in the city’s underbelly, with the father (Lee) holding up advertising placards near an intersection, the mother logging time at a grocery store, and their children forced to bathe in public restrooms and shiver through cold nights in exposed concrete shelters. None of this is as mawkish as it might sound—or even that dramatic, for that matter. It’s just achingly sad, to the point where the walls themselves, streaked black from water damage and neglect, appear tear-stained.
Witnessing Lee Kang-sheng break his reserve in Stray Dogs seems as momentous as Garbo talks, but damned if Jude Law didn’t make my jaw drop at the beginning of Dom Hemingway, Richard Shepard’s cheerfully vulgar follow-up to The Matador. Shown from the waist up, with bulging muscles and prison tattoos and muttonchops, Law chases away his effete persona with an incredibly foul monologue in praise of his “exquisite cock.” As the title character, a safecracker released from a 12-year prison stint, Law delivers Shepard’s bilious monologues with an escalating fury that couldn’t be further from the cads of The Talented Mr. Ripley or Alfie. Shortly after that opening salvo, Dom completes his sentence and travels with his partner in crime (Richard E. Grant, wonderfully aghast as always) to visit the Russian gangster (Demián Bichir) who owes him restitution for keeping his mouth shut all those years. He feels, properly, like he’s abided by the criminal code, and he wants what’s coming to him sooner than now.
Dom is a Jekyll and Hyde type of character, much like Nicolas Cage in Joe. He can be decent and he sincerely wants to reunite with his estranged daughter and grandson, but his hot temper—and the duplicitousness of crooks who don’t have a code at all—undermines him at every turn. Dom Hemingway is terrific in Hyde mode, mawkish in Jekyll. Which makes sense: Law spewing Mametian profanities at mob higher-ups is naturally going to be more entertaining than Law with his tail between his legs, begging for redemption. But Shepard, at his best, achieves a dark genre snap that reminded me of Sexy Beast, and I was grateful to have his tight, punchy gangster film send me out of TIFF 2013 on a high.
Also seen: There’s no indie horror director I admire more than Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers), who’s a master at building tension over a sustained period of time, rather than relying on short bursts of atmosphere and action. The first half of West’s The Sacrament has that quality, as a trio of Vice reporters head to a compound in an unnamed African country to report on a religious cult. But once it becomes clear the specific cult West is referencing, his docu-horror conceit is revealed to be in execrable taste. As Mike D’Angelo reported yesterday, I don’t share his disappointment with Kelly Reichardt’s eco-thriller Night Moves, which I found agonizingly suspenseful and thoughtful in the way it shows desperate activists trying to make a difference and crossing the line. I’m among many cinephiles with a soft spot for Hong Sang-soo, though Our Sunhi, a slight (in both senses of the word) variation on his usual soju-soaked tales of love and filmmaking, had me pining for the days of Turning Gate and before, when his style wasn’t so casual. Speaking of same-old, same-old, Sion Sono’s Why Don’t You Play In Hell? is his fitfully clever Death Of Movies/Love Live Cinema comedy, but the strained wackiness often sabotages his inventiveness and evident affection for celluloid. But the low point for me in an otherwise strong festival would have to be Enemy, the second and more experimental collaboration between the Prisoners team of Denis Villeneuve and Jake Gyllenhaal. Based on the José Saramago novel about the tension between a history professor and his doppelganger, it’s just the sort of literary conceit that translates into impenetrable twaddle on screen. By the time it works up to some diabolical Gyllenhaal-versus-Gyllenhaal action, we’re already well into the third act.