Director: David Gordon Green
Runtime: 117 minutes
After a few head-scratching studio efforts, director David Gordon Green has finally found his way back to his roots. It's been less than a year since the director's previous film, Prince Avalanche, showed signs of a return to the director's origins as a sharp observer of forgotten, rural America. Prince Avalanche, however, was but a lightweight appetizer compared to what Green has conjured this time. In Joe, the director delivers one of his strongest films, and re-establishes himself as a leading voice in American independent cinema.
Based on the novel by Larry Brown, Joe is ultimately an examination of father-son dynamics. Yet, as the opening scene shows us, this neck of the Texas woods is filled with heartbreak and abuse. It's a decrepit part of the country where many adults have stopped caring, forcing children to grow up far too soon. Among those children is Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan), who lives with his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter), along with his indifferent mother and mute younger sister. Desperate to provide for his family in ways his parents won't, he joins up with a local group led by ex-con Joe (Nicolas Cage). Joe and his crew are hired by lumber companies to poison trees, thereby giving the lumber giants a reason to clear forests for the sake of planting more useful trees.
In a way, Joe calls to mind last year's Mud, which featured young Mr. Sheridan falling in with a man with a criminal past (played by Matthew McConaughey). Despite some impressive acting and filmmaking, however, Mud was ultimately undermined by its padded script and last minute contrivances. Joe, by contrast, is a much richer, more assured work that gets more mileage out of its vaguely similar premise. Mud was the work of a director still trying to find his voice. Joe comes from someone who is reasserting his voice with great refinement.
Working with several notable collaborators, Green turns Gary Hawkins' adaptation into a richly atmospheric slice of Gothic Americana. The rural settings are captured beautifully through the clean, textured visuals, and they get an extra kick from composer David Wingo's understated and captivating score. Despite the stately pace, editing is smartly handled, with a standout montage providing one of the film's most effortlessly evocative sequences.
Green's understanding of atmosphere and place are invaluable, but they aren't alone in making Joe such a triumph. Cage and Sheridan, whether sharing the screen or not, prove to be perfect fits for Green's take on the material. For Sheridan, it's yet another notch in his belt as his indie cred soars even higher. For Cage, it's a return to form, as well as the actor's best work since the underrated Matchstick Men (2003). Cage can be inconsistent, but here his bursts of tightly wound anger feel authentic and lived-in, as opposed to hysterical or laughable. Hawkins' script may be a hair thin when it comes to Joe's history with violence, but Cage's performance is more than enough to fill in the small holes found on the page. When he's working opposite Sheridan, those small holes seem even less significant.
Even as Joe careens toward its rather expected finale, it retains interest thanks to the attention to both characters and setting. Joe's world is a grimy one, filled with dilapidated houses and dirt roads, but Green ensures that the toughness is never overstated. There are tough realities to be confronted, but that doesn't mean that all hope has been extinguished. Certain omissions prove mildly questionable (yes, it's a microscopic town, but not a single cell phone?), but Joe remains convincing. Past mistakes can weigh one down, or provide motivation for growth and change. Mr. Green, thankfully, has opted for the latter interpretation, for both his film, and his career.