A boy with a brutal father finds an unlikely paternal surrogate in David Gordon Green’s adaptation of Larry Brown’s novel “Joe,” which—following “Prince Avalanche”—continues the director’s welcome return to his indie roots after his highly uneven sojourn in the studio system. It’s a powerful piece of Southern gothic that gives Nicolas Cage his best role in years while providing another opportunity for young Tye Sheridan (“Mud”) to shine.
Sheridan plays Gary Jones, a teen who applies to Joe Ransom (Cage) for a job on the crew of illegal “tree poisoners” he runs for a local lumber firm. Joe has a criminal past—he once beat up a cop, which earned him a stint in prison and the hostility of the town deputies, though the sheriff, an old friend, is more concerned with keeping him out of trouble. But though he drinks too much, has a nasty guard dog at his place (and uses the mutt to take revenge on another troublesome mongrel), visits the local bordello a bit too regularly and has a hard time restraining himself when taunted by one of the town ruffians (Ronnie Gene Blevins) who’s itching to avenge an old slight, Joe’s basically a good guy trying to go straight. He’s also a generous sort, inviting in an ex-girlfriend who shows up at his doorstep and reluctantly becoming a protector to Gary, whose father Wade (Gary Poulter) is a vicious drunk who takes out his frustrations on not only the boy but his mother and sister as well—and appropriates any money the kid happens to make. One of the most unsettling scenes in the film also shows that he’s even willing to kill a homeless man for a bottle of booze, and he later effectively barters away his daughter for cash.
The narrative built around these two characters is in many respects fairly schematic. Joe becomes aware of Gary’s situation and tries to help, especially after Wade has a short stint as part of his crew of day workers and proves complete dead wood at the job. The kid, meanwhile, works hard and grows increasingly close to Joe, even wanting to buy his old truck and antagonizing Gary in the process. Like Green’s earlier dark fable about youngsters mistreated by their elders, “Undertow,” the film takes on an archetypal feel, with the characters serving both as individuals and as moral symbols. And so inevitably it closes with a redemptive, self-sacrificial ending in which evil must perish and good (or better) triumph, even at considerable cost.
It could hardly be alleged that “Joe” is subtle or understated, but that’s not the nature of the beast—nor of Nicolas Cage, it should be added. The film works because of the combination of the palpably grungy atmosphere of the Texas locations, the visceral intensity of the story’s melodramatic turns, and the almost operatic performances that Green draws from all his cast. It’s a heady brew that has more than a hint of contrivance to it, but when played at such a feverish pitch it takes on a feeling of near inevitability. Cage cannily gauges Joe’s transitions from low-key geniality to simmering menace, as well as the explosions of violence that suddenly punctuate them. Sheridan, meanwhile, captures Gary’s naïve, sensitive side as well as his gritty determination effectively. And Poulter, one of the non-professionals in the ensemble (Joe’s employees are others), gives a mesmerizing performance, savage and uncompromising. (Sadly, he died shortly after shooting was completed and never saw the finished film.) The supporting cast is fine down the line, though some (like Blevins) go for the rafters.
The technical side of things is equally fine, with Chris Spellman’s production design, Helen Britton’s set decoration and Jill Newell and Karen Malecki’s costumes all spot-on, while Tim Orr’s widescreen cinematography captures it all with seductive simplicity and the haunting score David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain unerringly accentuates the mood Green’s taken such pains to create.
“Joe” shares its title with John Avildsen’s scruffy 1970 sleeper hit, in which Peter Boyle had his breakthrough turn as a fanatically violent right-winger. Green’s film is considerably better, but one hopes that it can at least emulate the earlier picture’s ability to attract an audience. It deserves one.