In between raucous comedies such as Pineapple Express, The Sitter and Your Highness, director David Gordon Green specializes in quiet, thoughtful films with resonant themes and only a sliver of a plot (his last movie, Prince Avalanche, with Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch, was a miniature tale of a sweet friendship). Joe, Green’s new movie, initially seems like an odd match for him, since Larry Brown’s source novel was grim and violent and scabrous, all things the director’s movies aren’t.
But Green turns out to be a perfect fit for Joe, since the stillness and humanity of his movies helps to counterbalance the outbursts of ugliness in the screenplay by Gary Hawkins. Green also is the best person for Nicolas Cage to have worked with at this point in his career, when he’s been tottering on the brink of becoming a parody of himself. Green pulls him back from the edge and reminds you what a compelling actor Cage can be.
As Joe, Cage is an enigma, a funny, likable man who also drinks and gambles too much and has a propensity for violence (his job, poisoning trees for a lumber company so they can be cut down more easily, is a metaphor for his dual nature, a hard-working killer of nature).
When he hires the teenage Gary (Mud’s Tye Sheridan), who is hard-working and polite, he takes a shine to the kid. But after he meets Gary’s abusive father (the late Gary Poulter), a clownish lout who drinks away his son’s earnings and keeps his family in perpetual terror, Joe’s paternal instincts kick in. This is none of his business, and getting involved can only lead to trouble. But he can’t help himself.
Joe, which was shot by Green’s usual cinematographer Tim Orr, makes its rural setting feel real and lived-in. These characters inhabit a world far more rough-and-tumble that most, and after Joe beats up a guy in a bar fight, the threat of payback shadows him for the rest of the movie. But the film’s heart rests in the tender relationship between the world-weary Joe and the vulnerable Gary, who takes to this strange, volatile man with the trust and vulnerability of a best friend. Green’s movies rarely play out in conventional ways, and Joe, too, surprises in the end.
But Cage surprises you the most with his portrayal of a man who doesn’t care whether the world likes him but discovers he’s capable of taking an interest in someone who desperately needs help but can’t bring himself to ask.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler.
Director: David Gordon Green.
Screenwriter: Gary Hawkins. Based on the novel by Larry Brown.
Producers: David Gordon Green, Lisa Muskat, Derrick Tseng.
A Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 117 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, sexual situations, adult themes. In Miami-Dade only: Sunset Place.