This adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel of the same name has been described by many critics as a “return to form” for both director David Gordon Green and Nicolas Cage, who stars as the eponymous lead.
This could be seen as a redundant point as Green’s so-called “fall from grace” refers to his turn to comedies (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, Eastbound and Down) where many people have likely first heard his name, and even though not all of these efforts have been critically well received, they remain undeniably enjoyable. Also, while actual acting can be considered a rare treat from Cage nowadays, those who have followed his career, will be aware of the reasons for his various cash-grabbing projects and cherish the opportunity to witness him rivalling his turns in Leaving Las Vegas and Raising Arizona.
An ex-con, Joe spends his days poisoning trees for others to fell. He drinks, smokes, regularly visits a brothel and engages in a tumultuous relationship with dissatisfied girlfriend Connie (Adriene L Mishler, a lonely but stand-out female presence of the film) while trying to practise a restraint that – in his words – “keeps him alive”. It is the appearance of fifteen-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, still brilliant at the start of an already extraordinary career) asking for work that sets the plot in motion.
Joe becomes an unlikely father figure for the boy who is certainly missing one himself at home, continually shattered by horrific father Wade (Gary Poulter), one of the most morally bankrupt characters of recent contemporary cinema, and another incredible performance in a film brimming with them. In reality, Poulter was actually a homeless man whom Green employed for the film, defying executives and continuing his reputation of sourcing local talent. Sadly, Poulter passed away two months after filming and will never receive the accolades he is deserving of; for an actor with only one other credit (as an extra in long-finished series, thirtysomething), this is a thrillingly captivating performance.
Wade’s involvement with main antagonist, Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene-Blevinan, an actor rather overshadowed by those around him but solid nonetheless) leads to the denouement that after two strong acts feels unfortunately rushed. Despite amounting to two hours, the film perhaps suffers from a shorter running time than it deserves and impressed viewers will likely seek a copy of the book.
Brown’s Southern Gothic story stays as affecting now as it was 20 years ago and Gary Hawkins’ screenplay interpretation provides thought-provoking, beautifully naturalistic dialogue. All accompanied by David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain’s haunting score that, alongside the magnificence of Tim Orr’s shots taken from various locations around Texas, gives the viewer the addictive feeling of unsettled wonderment found before in Lynch, Malick and most recently Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective.
Joe is a weighty film that Cage, Sheridan and Poulter, alongside a stellar cast, carry masterfully. It features enough tenderness and a good dash of humour that it can be appreciated by almost anyone despite its dark undertones. Regardless of its imperfections, it is a must-see for those seeking something a little more meaningful in between the blockbusters this summer.