Film Title: Joe
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene
Running Time: 117 min
To date, David Gordon Green has zigzagged himself an enjoyably erratic groove. George Washington, his superb debut feature, flagged him as a denizen of the same arthouse borough that gave us Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep. His shift toward the American Gothic of Undertow and Snow Angels was more predictable than his subsequent lunge into stoner comedies (My Highness, Pineapple Express). Joe, in common with last year’s Prince Avalanche, sees the Austin-based director once again dirtying his hands with rusty Americana.
Green’s adaptation of Larry Brown’s grit-lit novel opens with a two-on-one beating by railway tracks and dilates into a world of drifters, lowlifes, rickety trucks, junkyard dogs, backwoods whorehouses and casual shootings. Interiors are filthy. Exteriors are strewn with debris.Non-professional players, including the excellent Brian Mays and the menacing Gary Poulter, add to the film’s sense of authenticity.
Sadly, Poulter, who was homeless when he was given the role, died on the streets of Austin a couple of months after the shoot. His legacy is a terrifying portrait of a downtrodden drunk who displays little humanity, even toward his son Gary (Tye Sheridan).
At 15, Gary is the primary provider for his homeless, broken family as they drift across Mississippi, in accordance with their violent daddy’s talent for making enemies. The teen finds an unlikely father figure in Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con who heads up a posse of juice-axe lumberjacks (that is, tree poisoners) and who gives the boy a much-needed job. Despite Joe’s bar brawls, hard drinking, hair-trigger temper and brothel visits, he is the closest thing to a decent chap that this brutal locale has to offer.
Just when you thought the Oscar winner had nothing more to offer than mawkish meme and shouty meme, bearded redneck turns out to be a good look for Cage, who puts in his best screen performance since Werner Herzog’sBad Lieutenant (2009). It helps that he’s playing opposite Sheridan, the brilliant young star of The Tree of Life and Mud. Cage and Green may have strayed from the path of cinematic righteousness from time to time, but their young colleague has yet to put a toe wrong.