Nicolas Cage must have been looking at Matthew McConaughey’s recent career and thought, “Hey, I want some of that!”
This would be the cynical take on Joe, the film in which Cage seems to offer a mea culpa for much of his work of the last decade and begs to be taken seriously again. Not only is Joe, based on a novel by Larry Brown, set in a similar small-town Southern milieu to McConaughey’s Mud, it features one of the kids from that film (the excellent Tye Sheridan) and both movies are crafted by directors with Arkansas and Texas ties (Jeff Nichols for Mud, David Gordon Green here).
But it’s to the credit of Green, Cage and screenwriter Gary Hawkins that Joe stakes out its own territory and slowly becomes an involving character study of a man pushed to emotional places that he doesn’t want to go.
Cage is Joe, an ex-con with anger-management and alcohol issues who runs a squad of day laborers who poison trees slated to be knocked down and clear brush for a timber company somewhere in Texas. The front end of the film feels more like a documentary as it follows the languid rhythm of Joe’s daily life.
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But then something happens to upset Joe’s routine. Into his life walks Gary (Sheridan), a gangly teenager looking for work — and, boy, does he need it. He lives in squalid poverty with a no-account, liquored-up dad, Wade (Gary Poulter), and a sister who seems traumatized.
Joe takes a liking to hard-working Gary and even lets the boy convince him to give his dad a try at the back-breaking work. Of course, Dad balks at having to perform actual labor and this is the first source of contention between Wade and Joe as they end up vying for Gary’s affections. The tension between the two builds and it’s not helped by the fact that Joe has made a lot of enemies in town and they still want to take Joe down a peg or two.
More than anything though, Joe feels like a portrait of a lost, rural world, one totally disconnected from the America seen on television every day. The realism is helped by the casting: The work crew is made up of guys who are not actors, and the impressive Poulter was a homeless man who died after filming was completed.
Whereas Green’s résumé runs from indie quirky ( Prince Avalanche) to profane, big-budget slapstick ( Pineapple Express, The Sitter, Your Highness), Joe finds him in a more contemplative mood, willing to take the time to develop a character without resorting to one-liners. In that sense, it’s a throwback to his early films like Undertow and All the Real Girls.
But what most viewers are going to come away with is the revelation that is Cage. The man who made Leaving Las Vegas is still alive and well, after all.
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* * * *
Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
Rated: R (violence, disturbing material, strong language, some strong sexual content)
Running time: 117 min.