Nicolas Cage is Joe, an ex-con who leads a troop of blue-collar workers in poisoning trees ahead of logging companies. He has a thick, sorrowful accent and an even thicker and sorrowful-er beard. He lives alone with a vicious dog and, when her home life becomes too much to bear, a very young girlfriend. He is committed to minding his own business, though the local cops have a hateboner for him, since he went to prison in the first place for assaulting one of their own. And of course, fate is capricious enough to tear him out of his hickish asceticism, in the form of young Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary, a teenager who squats in a condemned hovel with his filthy family. Gary, who just needs a job and wants to do good by everyone he meets. Gary, who will make Joe his role model, whether Joe likes it or not.
For the first time since the double punch of Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans and Kick-Ass, my beloved Nicolas Cage is trying again. For the first who even knows how long (The Weather Man, I think?) he’s trying in a role that’s mostly subdued instead of bugnuts insane. Of course, Joe has his explosive moments, during which Cage leaves bite marks on the scenery (which is mostly rusty tools or homes, or the expanses of forestry, such is the film’s idea of Southern life). And even his quieter moments feel hammy, what with his cartoonish gruffness. It’s like Cage is playing a parody of the salt-of-the-earth, manly-man redneck.
Tye Sheridan, known for last year’s Mud, shows again that he’s got a knack for naturalistic acting. Kid’s gonna go places. But this film truly belongs to Gary Poulter, playing his awful father Wade. A drug-addicted homeless man picked by the film’s crew off the streets of Austin, Poulter is a force of horrifying nature. He is every terrible idea of the South rolled into one disgusting package, and then deep-fried. He is a squatting, alcoholic, family-beating, lazy, foul-mouthed, racist, murderous, bearded, toothless, daughter-pimping monster. He is the film in whole, a harrowing and often pretty gross picture of rural life.
The script is based on a novel by Larry Brown, well-known as a purveyor of Southern “grit lit.” It was adapted by Gary Hawkins, who is deeply familiar with Brown’s work, having directed a documentary about the man. The story reads as though Hawkins took all his favorite bits from the novel and put them into the film as his choice of abridgement for the screen, because it definitely feels as though there are beats missing from certain subplots. The film rambles in circles through various kinds of ugliness, building towards a conclusion we all know is coming. There are characters and incidents that could have dropped away without a felt absence, and yet they do sort of add to the atmosphere the movie is building.
That atmosphere – of gothic meanness to an almost parodic degree – is the most striking thing about Joe. It’s certainly a departure from the dreamy, Malick-esque films that director David Gordon Green has previously done about the region. Although Green and his best buddy cinematographer Tim Orr still make the Southern milieu absolutely stunning. Joe is very silly and very upsetting, often at the same time. It’s not quite a Cage performance for the ages, but then, anyone would be outclassed in nuttiness next to Gary Poulter (who, sadly, died not long after making the film). At the very least, I’m glad David Gordon Green is directing films like this instead of The Sitter again.