Marred by cliches but superbly atmospheric and powerfully acted, “Joe” is a striking character study and a stirring picture of the toll of male rage and rural poverty.
In this deceptively small-scaled Southern drama, director David Gordon Green and actor Nicolas Cage reaffirm their status as artists who, when inspired, deliver drama and soul.
Green, who once made poetic-realist jewels such as “George Washington” and “Undertow,” made a comeback with last year’s enjoyable “Prince Avalanche,” and he continues with this bleaker, richer offering.
The source material is a Southern Gothic novel by Larry Brown. The setting is a destitute Texas town where locals wear plaid, day laborers earn cash by poisoning trees (for a lumber company seeking to clear the land), and dogs exhibit their owners’ aggressions.
Cage plays Joe, a hard-drinking, 48-year-old tree-poisoning crew supervisor with a good heart, a jail record and a no-nonsense bulldog.
After demonstrating his grit, along with Green’s bent for symbolism, by picking up a cottonmouth snake and displaying its fangs, Joe shows his warmer side by hiring Gary (Tye Sheridan), a hardworking 15-year-old with an abusive, alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter).
Tension builds as Joe, who has become Gary’s protector, battles both Wade and a second antagonist, a scar-faced good-for-nothing (Ronnie Gene Blevins) seeking revenge over a brawl. Joe also fights inner demons and attempts to contain his erupting anger. The premise of a violent ex-con who achieves redemption by connecting with a deserving kid is hardly novel, and cliches such as a woman in danger increase the film’s plot-related shortcomings.
Females are limited to brothel women, Joe’s love interest (Adriene Mishler) and, speaking of cliches, Gary’s damaged sister, who inexplicably became mute.
And Green, who reveals an impressive dark side, nearly goes overboard with the visceral content. (Joe skins a deer, cuts a bullet out of his body and instigates dog-on-dog bloodshed.)
Yet Green, assisted by cinematographer Tim Orr, wonderfully presents desolate rural atmospheres, which he thickens with compelling unease. He doesn’t let the gore obscure the humanity, and captures the emotional effects of poverty along with the geographic.
Cage brings to riveting life a character that easily could have seemed just another redemptive hard-lucker. When restrained, his Joe is a scary force of subsurface disquiet. When explosive, he’s everything audiences want.
Rising teen star Sheridan (who also had father-figure issues in “Tree of Life” and “Mud”) has rapport with Cage. A highlight among numerous comic-relief scenes is a mentoring session in which Joe coaches Gary in how to put on a “cool face.”
Authentic casting pays off in the smaller roles. Poulter, a nonactor who died recently, is frighteningly convincing as the brutal Wade.
Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Written by Gary Hawkins
Directed by David Gordon Green