At its best the cinema of David Gordon Green is powered by a strong sense of space, location, and a natural alignment with regionalism. Like Terrence Malick, Green’s best films prize the environment surrounding his characters just as much as the characters themselves. George Washington (2000) and All The Real Girls (2003) are both so heavily imbued with regional atmosphere that the location becomes a central character to the film’s narrative. Though Green transitioned into mainstream comedy in 2008 and gave up this aesthetic temporarily, he revived it with Prince Avalanche (2013) to great effect. Green’s even more recent film Joe (2013) attempts the same aesthetic, though this time in the guise of a genre film written by Gary Hawkins.
Until Joe, Green’s personal projects were written or co-written by him, and it was only during his foray into mainstream comedy beginning with Pineapple Express (2008) that he began directing other writer’s screenplays. These films were not reliant upon Green’s aesthetic of naturalism and bore little resemblance to his signature style. Though Joe may not be typically commercial, Hawkins script is heavily weighted with genre conventions. Green attempts to take Hawkins script and let it open up, directing the film to concentrate more heavily on character than story. Where another filmmaker would have kept the film going at a nice clip, Green slows the film down with long shots of characters in a space as reflective as it is realistic before the scene really starts or ends. This approach is in turn aided by Green’s employment of local non-actors in supporting roles. Casting like this has long been a part of Green’s style, reinforcing the notion that the film and all of its characters are unique to the region of the narrative.
The fusion of commercial and personal aesthetics prevalent in Joe remains only a portion of the spectacle. The even more superficial signifier of an evolution in Green’s filmmaking comes in the form of Nicolas Cage. A one time darling of the off-beat comedy and art house film, Cage returns to the stomping ground of his youth from a long spell in schlocky would-be blockbusters. In many respects, Joe is a sort of comeback film for Nicolas Cage, who hasn’t been able to demonstrate his tremendous talents since his collaboration with Werner Herzog on Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans (2008). As the title character in Green’s film, Cage explores the more nuanced side of his craft, giving the audience one of his most realistic and haunting performances of his career.