PLOT: An ex-con (Nicolas Cage) living a rough and tumble life in the south becomes the unlikely father figure for a teenager (Tye Sheridan) with an abusive, alcoholic bum father.
REVIEW: With PRINCE AVALANCHE, director David Gordon Green seemed to be inching back towards his earlier, indie roots. JOE, arguably his finest film since SNOW ANGELS (maybe even earlier) continues that transition, bringing him back to the Southern Gothic feel that served him so well in movies like GEORGE WASHINGTON and UNDERTOW.
Without a doubt, this is his hardest movie in years. It's a fairly grim tale. Nicolas Cage's titular character is well on his way to redemption throughout, but right from the start there's no doubt that path will be a violent and costly one. Cage hasn't had a part like this in years. Watching him as Joe tries his damnedest to keep a lid on the explosive violence in his nature that always threatens to come to the surface is really something. It feels like we've really got the old Cage back, who we haven't really seen since BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS. Heck, even in that film Cage got to chew the scenery and go over the top. There's none of that here. It's his most disciplined performance since THE WEATHER MAN.
A lot of characters are called bad ass, but Joe really is one. By day, he makes a living running a crew of workers who poison trees for a living so they can be cut down and replaced (a pretty apt metaphor for the story). By night, he spends his time drinking, getting into fights, and hanging out with hookers, who love to give him freebies. The way Cage plays him, Joe isn't a jerk, but he has a hair-trigger temper, and is especially despised by many of the local cops, for reasons that are revealed later. Cage is just so cool in the role, from his tattooed arms, to the way he pours whiskey on his hands and uses it to clean his face. He's a real tough guy.
Still, he has a good heart, and when a kid named Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes around looking for work, Joe takes him under his wing. His tough-love bond with the kid, who Joe recognizes a lot of himself in, is affecting. Sheridan broke out in a big way with Jeff Nichols' MUD, and JOE feels similar to that albeit harder. Sheridan is a little more cynical, and a lot tougher than he was in MUD, but it's a role he's ideally suited for.
One of the most unique aspects of JOE is Green's use of Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor (who died shortly after filming), in the key role as Gary's dad. He plays a bum, with long scraggly hair, a ear that looks like half of it was chewed off, and a mouthful of rotten teeth. He's drunk to the point of imbecility, and only rouses himself to beat his kids every now and then. He's a despicable person, but it's a testament to Green's gifts that even he has a few moments that suggest he may have one time been something more than the monster he's become.
Like the rest of Green's movies, the ugliness of the story is offset by the often beautiful visuals, as shot by Tim Orr. Green has an affinity for the south, and manages to find beauty in even the most dirt-poor of places. The same goes for the score by Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo, which helps bring the film to an emotional crescendo in the last act, that can't help but pack a punch.
JOE really puts David Gordon Green right back to where he was with SNOW ANGELS. With the exception of THE PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, his talents seemed lost on mainstream comedies, but once again he feels right back in his element. This is him at his very best.