David Gordon Green’s new film “Joe” shares a certain kinship with last year’s “Mud.” In the latter film, Tye Sheridan plays a Southern kid who finds a paternal figure in Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an outlaw taking refuge on a small island in the middle of the bayou, because his own father is mainly absent.
In “Joe,” Sheridan plays another Southern kid who finds a paternal figure in Joe (Nicholas Cage, in his best role in years). Sporting a thick mountain-man beard, Joe, who runs a business that clears forests by poisoning the trees, gives 15-year-old drifter Gary (Sheridan) a job so he can support his family. Overall, “Joe” is a raw, well-made, backwoods drama that contains two great lead performances.
Gary, his younger sister and their parents squat in an abandoned house in the film’s Southern town setting that’s absolutely filthy and decrepit. While Gary’s out working, his father’s out stumbling around the town, sorting through trashcans.
The father can be called the film’s villain, but he’s just so pathetic and hopeless that it’s a little difficult to maintain interest in him as one. But then he beats Gary and takes most of his earnings to buy more booze, and at one point, he beats a random homeless man to death with a wrench for a bottle of wine.
The rest of “Joe” — for the most part — wallows in this similar misery and hopelessness. It takes place in one of those fading towns, full of abandoned buildings and dreams, that is practically being overtaken by the dense surrounding forests. It’s a dead-end town that’s probably just a few years away from disappearing completely.
Everyone who lives here has some kind of troubled past (and a troubled present), including Joe. On the one hand, he appears to be angry with the world and has given up. He still runs his business, but when he’s not working, he’s at home drinking scotch, visiting a brothel in a dilapidated mansion or going to the general store.
There’s a certain amount of mystery behind Joe. We learn he went to jail for assaulting a cop, which clearly suggests he had a history with losing his temper and doing bad things. In “Joe” he’s trying to leave that behind, but in an environment that’s full of the scummiest of lowlifes, that’s difficult.
There’s still a part of Joe that cares, that’s willing to lend a hand to people in need, like Gary. This is why Joe eventually finds himself caring about Gary, who is in an awful situation but has a strong sense of hope. It’s this genuine and touching relationship between Joe and Gary that propel the movie forward.
Cage he gives his first legitimately great performance in a while. He’s incredibly restrained and nuanced. Even though his character remains a man of few words, Cage displays some affection and tenderness at moments.
As for Sheridan, not many 15-year-olds can hold their own with experienced actors like McConaughey or Cage. Having done this kind of role twice now, it comes off effortless to the audience.
“Joe” isn’t flawless; sometimes the movie has a tendency to wander, especially at the beginning, and the supporting characters remain thinly sketched, such as Connie (Adriene Mishler), a young gal whom Joe also helps, and Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), another weak, pathetic scumbag.
Ultimately, though, it’s the performances from Cage and Sheridan that make “Joe” a satisfying watch…at least once. I’m not sure if I’d want to see it again.
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