Jude Law and Nicolas Cage star in two current movies in which they play the eponymous characters--both hard-drinking, hot-tempered ex-cons speeding straight down the Highway to Hell. Each finds redemption of a sort, but their forms of redemption are as different as the movies themselves, which present an interesting study in how two films with similar themes can be utterly different in tone. I liked both films, though some audiences will find them mannered in the extreme.
Richard Shepard's Dom Hemingway is the lighter of the two, imitating the testosterone-fueled jokiness of Guy Ritchie's films. Like Ritchie and a few other British directors, the American Shepard likes to test the endurance of his audience; Dom Hemingway begins with Law's Hemingway getting fellated in a prison shower, all the while shouting a long, profane and boastful paean to his favorite anatomical feature. Long and profane monologues are a specialty for Dom Hemingway, who has the macho-man ego of his author namesake if not his laconic style.
Dom has spent twelve years in prison for safecracking. His sentence would have been shorter if he had rolled on his boss, the sinister Ivan Fontaine (Demian Bichir), but he kept silent in expectation of a big payday upon his release.
When Dom gets out of prison, his first act is to find his late ex-wife's boyfriend and beat him bloody. His second is to go on a three-day binge of booze, cocaine and hookers, funded by Fontaine, before heading to the South of France with his old pal Dickie Black (Richard E. Grant) to claim his reward.
Dom and Dickie find Fontaine in a luxurious villa, living with his gorgeous but mercenary mistress Paolina (Madalina Ghenea). To say more about what happens at the villa would reveal too much. Let's just say that Dom—in case you haven't taken the hint—is not exactly a model of impulse control. (You wonder how he kept his mouth shut in prison for twelve years, because he certainly can't once he's out.) Dom soon finds himself back in London, penniless and begging the forgiveness of his grown daughter Evelyn (Emilia Clarke, almost unrecognizable from her role as Daenerys in Game of Thrones), who wants nothing to do with him.
Dom Hemingway is an episodic character study of the sort of guy who, if we knew him in real life, we would cross not only the street but the continent to avoid. Law, however, makes him both more likable and more nuanced than we'd ever expect him to be. The key to Dom's character is that, for all his knee-jerk brutality and scatological bravado, he's something of an innocent, always trusting to luck and his partners in crime. That belief is reinforced by Melody (Kerry Condon), one of the hangers-on at Fontaine's villa, who at a crucial point in the action tells Dom that he will have good luck when he least expects it and most needs it. Deep down, Dom has always believed that anyway. So no one is more surprised than he when his luck gets worse and worse, to the point that an old enemy (Jumayn Hunter) is in a position to exact an extreme revenge on Dom. (Remember I mentioned Game of Thrones?)
Therefore, Dom's quasi-redemption—on three different fronts—comes across as a deus (or dei) ex machina. Despite that, it's a satisfying ending, thanks largely to Law. The supporting cast is fine, but this is Law's show, and it is a compliment to say he makes a spectacle of himself.
David Gordon Green's Joe is as far removed in setting and tone from Dom Hemingway as possible, despite the similarities between their protagonists. Whereas Dom Hemingway is self-consciously jocular, Joe wallows in Southern Gothic degradation to a degree that makes Winter's Bone look frivolous.
Like Dom Hemingway, Joe (Nicolas Cage) has a violent temper; unlike Dom, that temper is the sole cause of his legal problems. Joe has spent years in prison for assaulting policemen and various others. At the start of the screenplay by Gary Hawkins based on a novel by the late Larry Brown, Joe is free, working the only job he can get—supervising a largely black work crew in the scrubby woods of central Texas, poisoning healthy trees so lumber companies can come in and plant pines in their stead.
Joe spends most of his nights alone, watching TV and drinking bourbon straight from the bottle. He has learned not to go out too often, because otherwise he risks running into guys like Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins). Willie-Russell has permanent scars on his face thanks to Joe, and he would like to give Joe a permanent gift in return.
Joe's already unsettled life is shaken up further by the arrival of Wade, a/k/a G-Dawwg (Gary Poulter), and Wade's teenage son Gary (Tye Sheridan). Wade is even more of a drunk than Joe, and far more vicious in the bargain, without Joe's work ethic or essential decency. Wade and Gary join Joe's work crew; Wade doesn't last the day, but Gary begs to stay on, and Joe—touched by Gary's earnestness—agrees. Reluctantly at first, then wholeheartedly, Joe becomes a father figure to Gary.
At fifteen, Gary is already much more of a man than his real father, trying to protect his mother and sister while fending off his father's frequent beatings. His ambition is to save up the $900 he needs to buy Joe's old truck. However, Wade—who cares about nothing except getting and staying drunk—wants the money his son is hiding from him, and will stop at nothing to get it. The situation worsens when Willie-Russell adds Gary to his list of enemies and forces Wade into becoming his accomplice in an act of double revenge.
Although Joe can justly be accused of overkill, it has many scenes of undeniable power, and fine acting throughout. It is nice to see Nicolas Cage play a recognizable human being again, instead of some comic book writer's conceit. But as excellent as Cage is, the standout here is Sheridan, who builds on the strong impression he made last year in Jeff Nichols' Mud. In his first two movies, Sheridan has held his own on screen with two Best Actor Oscar winners, in performances that are sturdy, sensitive, and honest.
Except for Cage and Sheridan, I had never heard of any of the actors in Joe; that is in keeping with Green's preference for hiring local and nonprofessional actors whenever possible. In this light, I must say a word about Gary Poulter, whose only screen performance was in Joe. Poulter was a homeless alcoholic in real life, and he returned to the streets of Austin once Joe wrapped. Fifty-four but looking twenty years older, Poulter brought an authenticity to the role of Wade that would have been hard to match, as well as the natural power of a born actor. Poulter plays one harrowing but oddly poetic scene by a river, demonstrating exactly what Wade is prepared to do to get a drink; once viewed, that scene can never be forgotten.
A couple of months after filming ended, Poulter was found dead, a victim of accidental drowning while intoxicated. I do not know if the filmmakers tried to help him, or how much responsibility they felt toward him. I only know that I wish Gary Poulter could have found a way to escape the demons that destroyed him.