David Gordon Green’s best film to date recalls the bleak and brilliant spirit of such Cormac McCarthy novels as “Suttree” and “Cities of the Plain.” Joe takes place in the remote backwoods and hick towns of Texas where many live just above the poverty line. Nicolas Cage, as Joe Ransom, is doing somewhat better than his contemporaries running a tree-poisoning operation while contracted under the table by an unknown corporation. He has a house, a pitbull, a television to fall asleep to, girls at the local whorehouse, his whiskey and cigarettes. His work crew is under the radar, but his newest addition is a 15-year old named Gary (Tye Sheridan, “Mud”), who has an abusive redneck for a father. Over the course of time, he mentors the boy but in the meantime wrestles with his violent temper. He gets involved, and as a result gets inexplicably connected to local trouble.
Green got started making southern flavored indies about the poor, the hard luck and the desperate with such titles as “George Washington” (2000), “All the Real Girls” (2003) and “Undertow” (2004) before trying his hand at Hollywood gross-out comedies. “Pineapple Express” (2008) was a rambunctious and successful comedy, but yikes… I don’t even want to mention that other garbage he made. “Joe” is a return to form, and a relief that he’s once again a mature filmmaker. On a rare occasion, “Joe” is a tad too excessive but we’re never not impressed. He’s also given Cage a rebound role.
After a string of embarrassments in sell-out Hollywood formulas, Cage has been able to excite me again with the pursuit of a serial killer thriller “The Frozen Ground” (2013) and now “Joe,” certainly a stark entry. If I had never known of all his roles from the last thirty years, I would simply be impressed with Cage’s all too easy embodiment of a roughneck with brutally adept ways in how he handles the crises that attempt to befall him. He has a scene where a local sheriff and longtime acquaintance visits his home to warn him that if he keeps up his head-smashing, drunk-driving, cop-defying ways he is going to end up in the penitentiary. Joe has a past there, it is said, and his tattoos suggest that he’s able to hack it. But why the recent stormy behavior and why is he so compelled to push the limits with the law?
You can see with no doubt Joe is looking out for the young boy, his attempt to be charitable. Gary is out to stir up some violence of his own if he doesn’t learn to keep a lid on it. Continuously protecting himself from the blows of his father, Gary considers killing him for good. There’s also a cut-up figure named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), whose very depraved way of speech is scary enough, keeps harassing both Joe and Gary – this drama feels unforced and inevitable though. The strength of the film (based on a 1991 novel by Larry Brown that’s been compared to both McCarthy and William Faulkner), is that the conflict and emotional turmoil is so genuine that the plot itself isn’t engineered but spontaneous in its combustion.
When Joe and Gary turn to each other, with Joe becoming a surrogate father and Gary the protégé out to please a father figure, what ensues is the most touching if merciless of redemption tales. For awhile I thought the film was going to be like last year’s “Mud,” but this is a meaner and darker tale. God help me if I can’t quite help but feel, as good as “Mud” was, this is a more engrossing film. This is a harsh and unforgiving world that I’m removed from, and I’m all the more fascinated by it. I’m only far too worried of “Joe” becoming the most overlooked great film of the year. If you are a fan of “Winter’s Bone” (2010) or “Killer Joe” (2012), or gritty redneck stories in general, then don’t let “Joe” pass you by.
117 Minutes. Rated R.
DRAMA / AVANTE-GARDE / LATE NIGHT OBSESSIONS
Film Cousins: “Undertow” (2004); “Ballast” (2008); “Winter’s Bone” (2010); “Texas Killing Fields” (2011).