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 runs a business that clears forests by poisoning the trees and gives fifteen year old drifter Gary, (Sheridan) a job so he can support his family. Overall, “Joe” is raw, well made, backwoods drama that contains two great lead performances.
To say that Gary’s home/family life is rough would be a massive understatement. Himself, along with his younger sister, mother and father squat in an abandoned house in the film’s southern town setting that’s absolutely filthy and decrepit. His sister and mother don’t do much of anything except breathe and his father, well, his father is terrible. With his white beard and white hair, he slightly resembles an old time-y hobo you might see riding a train with a bindle. While Gary’s out working, he’s out stumbling around the town sorting through trashcans. You can practically smell the alcohol—and whatever he’s rolled in—on him. Who knows when he last changed his shirt or pants, or even showered.
I guess he can be called the film’s villain but he’s just so pathetic and hopeless that it’s a little hard to maintain interest in him as one. Just when you think he can’t get even more hopeless and pathetic he does; 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 biological father in “Mud” may have been lame but he at least was salvageable; this dad is not. And I just wanted him to die.
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. However, Joe isn’t so pathetic and hopeless. On the one hand he does appear to be angry with and given up on the world. 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, trying to reform, but in an environment that’s full of the scummiest of lowlifes, that’s kind of difficult.
Part of Joe has given up on the world and yet part of him hasn’t. There’s still a part of him that cares, that’s willing to lend a hand to people in need, like Gary. He’s no saint but he’s not all bad either. The best way to describe this part of his attitude is, in his own words: “I can’t promise you anything, but I’ll try to be nice.” This is why Joe eventually finds himself caring about Gary. Gary is in an awful situation but he’s really the only character with a strong sense of hope. He’s very intelligent, hard working, persistent and could very easily go off on his own and fend for himself. But he decides to stay and tries to mend his crappy situation. He knows his dad is a pathetic mess and that his mother and sister and totally helpless but he still goes to work and still remains optimistic that things will get better.
It’s this genuine and touching relationship between Joe and Gary that propel the movie forward. Without them, there wouldn’t be a movie. I don’t need to tell you that Cage hasn’t made the best acting choices in recent years but in “Joe” he gives his first legitimately great performance in a while. You won’t see him hamming it up as he’s so prone to do; instead he’s incredibly restrained and nuanced, occasionally losing his temper, and even though the character is mostly internalized and remains a man of few words, Cage displays some affection and tenderness at moments. As for Sheridan; not many fifteen 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 that Joe also lends help to and Willie, (Ronnie Gene Blevins) another weak and pathetic scumbag, so weak in fact that Gary even kicks his ass at one point. Like Gary’s father he can also be considered a villain but again he’s not too compelling. His justification for trying to molest a little girl is that in this town she’s going to start prostituting anyway. Yeah. Like Gary’s father, just rid the earth of his presence.
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.