Published May 02, 2014With stoner comedies and action blockbusters as their respective meal tickets, director David Gordon Green and megastar/meme Nicolas Cage have been coasting for years now. However, with the gritty and atmospheric Joe, adapted from the novel by Larry Brown, they have both rediscovered at least a few notes of subtlety and grace.
Looking more hulky and bulky than ever, Cage brings a refined performance as the title character, an ex-con trying to stave off his violent anger explosions against the less than decent population of the small Texas town where he lives. This is put to the test when he meets 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan), who begins working for Joe's tree-clearing business in order to care for his family of drifting invalids. Gary's attempts to earn a straight living are thwarted by his alcoholic father (Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless Texan), engaging Joe's protective, and sometimes explosive, tendencies. The film hurtles toward a violent conclusion not unfamiliar to those who have seen other unlikely redemption stories like Taxi Driver or Sling Blade.
This relatively well-trodden territory does result in some pokey, sluggish pacing and bizarre asides; the scene in which Joe carves fresh deer steaks is one entertaining example. More than for the story itself, the film is worth watching for the renaissance of the talent involved: Cage depicts his character's own struggle with alcohol as more complex and human than he did in the bafflingly-lauded Leaving Las Vegas, while Green brings more intensity and focus to his staging than we have seen from him since George Washington. However, the real revelation is Poulter, who showcases the raw effect of a life on the street in every scene.
Despite his villainous role, Poulter hits potent notes of disorientation and disturbance, eliciting pangs of sympathy and pity rather than venom. Triumphant as Cage and Green are in their simple character study, our brief insight into Poulter's soul (before he was found dead a mere two months after filming) is a story that warrants its own film. With Joe, the audience can witness redemption happening on varying levels of storytelling.