Now that Matthew McConaughey has had his McConaissance, Nicolas Cage has to be next in line for an extreme career makeover. Once one of Hollywood's most esteemed actors with an Oscar on the shelf, his financial issues have bled over into his work, starring in a series of increasingly awful paycheck flicks that probably wouldn't get made without his name attached. Every actor takes a paycheck gig at one point or another, but Cage has turned it into a sad art. And so it makes sense for him to team up with David Gordon Green, the indie auteur back after a run of terrible stoner and sex comedies. Both men could use a change, and the impassioned, rugged backwater drama Joe is the best work from both men in a very long time.
Part Winter's Bone with a dash of last year's Mud (McConaughey's actual best film from last year), Joe continues Green's exploration of the economically-depressed, further damaged by generations of physical and emotional abuse. Set in a squalid rural Texas town, Cage plays Joe Ransom, who runs a team hired to poison trees so the lumber company can chop them down. Joe seems like a good and fair man, but there's a rage that's always on the verge of finding its way. There's a "devil inside of him", as one character alludes to at one point, and inn a way that makes him perfect for the ugly, grim town in which he's chosen to live. Early on we're introduced to Gary (Tye Sheridan, also of Mud), a troubled 15-year-old boy with an abusive father in Wade (Gary Poulter) who is too drunk to care for their homeless family. But Joe sees something in Gary; perhaps it's just the chance to save a damaged kid before he's too far gone, the way nobody did for him.
The threat of violence all around them, from old grudges to drunken patriarchs, Joe and Gary find in one another a calming escape. Joe takes the boy under his wing, feeding his work ethic and steering him as far away from Wade as possible. But Joe has trouble keeping his rage bottled up. An ex-con with a booze problem and a mysterious past in a psychiatric ward, Joe is known to everybody in town, including the police. Occasionally the monster gets let out of the bottle and blood gets spilled; like when a past enemy comes paying a visit, or when his favorite whore's security dog barks too much. Joe's constant struggles, and frequent failure, to overcome his weaknesses make for a despairing tale, but Green finds moments of levity in this deep woods bromance.
Adapted from Larry Brown's manly novel, Joe is populated with a wealth of heartless characters performing despicable acts. Some, like Joe's enemy Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), wear wickedness on their sleeves. Others, like Wade, reveal their murderous depths mostly in secret. Joe's quest for redemption, to make up for past wrongs, is ultimately what gives the film its incredible heart. Cage has never felt larger, like more of a superstar, in one of his most understated performances. It's a pleasure to watch him portray such a layered, nuanced character again, and he's clearly relishing the opportunity. In his young career, Sheridan has worked with the likes of Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols, directors who, like Green, have a similar poetic sensibility. But his role here is considerably more adult than anything before, nicely capturing the mood of a kid burdened with responsibilities beyond his years. Poulter, a homeless man who gives a terribly frightening debut performance, died not long after shooting was completed.
Joe is a beautiful film, told with subtlety and grace. Like the titular character, we can only hope Green and Cage will continue down this path rather than slipping into old habits.