Film Review: Joe

A low-key but rejuvenated-looking Nicolas Cage cuts an impressive figure as the gruff hero of this muscular and wry small-town Southern noir.

A whiskey-slugging melodrama that wears its considerable heart on a tattered sleeve that smells of last night’s cigarettes, Joe is David Gordon Green’s most dramatically assured story to date. An adaptation of the Larry Brown novel, it stars Nicolas Cage in a non-showy comeback role as Joe Ransom, one of those guys who everybody in his small town knows at least a half-dozen good hell-raising stories about. But even though Joe is a man with a past and a surly demeanor, it won’t surprise anybody that when a teenage boy comes looking for work as a way of helping out his destitute family of drifters, Joe is right there willing to help out. In part, that’s because Joe is seen around town as basically a decent sort of fellow. Also, Cage relies here on his sad and tired dog-eyed look, usually deployed when he has to play a decent human being who’s gotten the short end of the stick.

The teenager, Gary, is played with staunch conviction by Tye Sheridan (Mud), who’s started to specialize in these raw and unfinished kids who burn with a fiery determination. First seen squabbling with his drunk father, Gary then shows up at the work crew which Joe runs. Soon, he’s something of a mascot for the rough-and-tumble gang of men whose off-the-books work is poisoning trees so that the lumber company (which is only allowed in that area to cut down dead trees) can harvest them. Joe, who ferries the all-black crew to and from the site every day, is clearly a fair boss and so somebody to root for when the walls start closing in on him.

When things go bad in Joe, it happens fast. Not far into it, Joe gets shot in the chest by a scar-faced creep in a truck who drives off after Joe sends a few slugs his way. Gary Hawkins’ screenplay doesn’t volunteer much of any information that fast, but apparently the shooter, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and Joe have had it in for each other for some time, so this sort of thing is bound to happen. Joe doesn’t do anything as sensible as go to a hospital, though. Instead he drives home and yanks out that fool bullet his own self.

After that, Joe’s not so carefully constructed world of hard work and hard drinking and occasional trips to the local cathouse gets crowded with people needing help. A young pre-fatale friend of the female persuasion (Adriene Mishler) invites herself in to share his bed after not wanting to be around her mother’s boyfriend. Wade, Gary’s drunk of a father (non-actor Gary Poulter, whose coiled, burnt-out rage is devastatingly effective), becomes increasingly abusive just as Joe begins to develop a certain cool and kindly uncle attitude toward the kid. Meanwhile, Willie circles Joe like a petulant animal, looking for even more revenge.

While Joe builds inexorably toward the inexorably bloody conclusion, Green mortars the solidly laid bricks of its noir story with a healthy leavening of his other work’s more flyaway naturalistic scenery. There’s a lot of the backwoods non-sequitur comedy of Prince Avalanche here, and also the evocative atmospherics of George Washington. The mixing of styles between the fluid and improvised-looking scenes including the cast’s many non-professionals and the more strictly scripted plot-building moments don’t always mesh as well as they should.

But while Cage and Sheridan’s well-crafted dynamic can sometimes seem to be coming from a different planet, the film’s looser moments and less obviously acting performers ultimately give the community of Joe a lived-in texture that many overheated Southern crime dramas aren’t able to pull off. Green’s feel for naturalism and digression keeps the film’s literary roots from showing. It isn’t going too far, though, to say that the complicated, punishing relationship between Gary and Wade strongly echoes that of Huckleberry and Pap Finn. Gary is wedded to his father just as tightly as Joe is wedded to his penitentiary past, even though both of those things might kill them.

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