We give Nicolas Cage a lot of ribbing (and rightly so) for his over-the-top performances in nutty movies, but Joe is a reminder that he can balance those lunatic sensibilities with real acting when he feels like it. Set deep in rural Texas and based on a 1991 Larry Brown novel, the film is also a reminder of director David Gordon Green’s knack for atmosphere, and of 17-year-old Tye Sheridan’s status as one of the most promising young actors in the movies today.
Sheridan, who played the lead opposite Matthew McConaughey in Mud, isn’t far removed from that situation in Joe, another Southern coming-of-age drama about boys with unorthodox father figures. Here he plays Gary, a respectful ma’am-and-sir adolescent who drifts around Texas with his drunken, abusive, deadbeat father, Wade (Gary Poulter), and his worn-down mother and sister. At the moment, they’re squatting in a shack near some podunk town, any money they get going straight into Wade’s liquor-hole.
Gary crosses paths with Joe Ransom (Cage), a rough character who’s no stranger to booze and violence himself but who’s currently gainfully employed by the logging industry and trying to stay on the straight and narrow. Seeing that the kid is a hard worker with potential to become a responsible adult, Joe gives Gary a job on his crew. He tries to do the same for Wade, but the old souse’s laziness gets in the way. Joe starts to keep an eye on Gary, who’s more capable of fending for himself than a 15-year-old should have to be but is still, after all, only a kid.
Meanwhile, Joe’s own troubles keep resurfacing, and we get the impression his wild days aren’t exactly behind him. He’s shot in the arm by a local redneck named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) barely 25 minutes into the film, and the shooting doesn’t even become a big plot point. Joe is the sort of man who just gets shot by angry townsfolk sometimes, that’s all. He says it’s “restraint” that’s keeping him alive and out of prison, but that’s clearly not going to last much longer.
Adapted from Brown’s novel by Gary Hawkins (who once made a documentary about the Mississippi-born novelist), the film suffers from occasional aimlessness. It has the feel of a movie that’s going to be story-driven, but it isn’t — we keep waiting for the hints of plot to develop into one.
Atmosphere is more important to David Gordon Green, who cut his teeth on evocative, sun-baked tone poems like George Washington and All the Real Girls before moving to stoner farces (Your Highness) and last year’s Prince Avalanche, a seriocomic blend of both styles. Joe finds the director in still new territory, adding strong violence and moderate suspense to the mix. He’s best at giving us a sense of place, and this place — with its indecipherable accents, grimy shacks, toothless whores, mangy dogs, and kitchen-table deer skinnings — rings true.
If Joe is exercising restraint, so is Cage, who resists what must have been a powerful temptation to play Joe as an insane redneck. He’s compelling here in a way he hasn’t been in a while: as a real character (albeit a colorful one), not as a sideshow. Cage is well-matched with young Sheridan, whose adolescent gawkiness mirrors the character’s situation of being trapped between childhood and adulthood. Joe is a little off the mark, but the tone and the performances are spot-on.
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