Directed by David Gordon Green
Joe is a grim, gritty, low key yet violent drama set in modern day rural Texas, but it could just as easily have been set 50 years, or even a Western set over a century ago. Nicolas Cage plays the title character Joe, an ex-convict who struggles with alcohol, a violent temper and a self-destructive streak. He leads a group of men who, fittingly enough, spend their days killing trees (so that stronger ones may be planted later). When a teenage boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in another gritty rural melodrama, Mud) shows up needing a job, Joe takes the troubled boy under his wing.
Gary has an abusive, alcoholic father (expertly played by Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor who died shortly after the film was made) and a mute sister. Both Gary and Joe are targeted by a psychotic local named Willie who was slapped by Joe in a bar fight. The plot here, however, almost seems secondary. These seem like characters who are so hard up and haunted by inner demons that they fabricate conflicts with one another to have a target for their rage and disappointments. Joe can be seen as a hybrid of several genres -coming of age, Southern Gothic and violent revenge melodrama.
The film is full of despair, hopelessness and senseless violence. The most violent scene depicts a brutal murder committed for no motive beyond one downtrodden character wanting to steal a bottle of booze from a weaker, even more downtrodden character. When Joe, ostensibly the hero, gets annoyed that a dog barks at him, he orders his own pit bull to kill the other dog. Joe also seems intent on returning to prison as he regularly taunts and provokes the local cops into arresting him.
There are a couple of other films that Joe reminded me of. Winter’s Bone, directed by Debra Granik and starring Jennifer Lawrence, is cut from the same cloth. Like Joe, that film has many amateur local actors (that one is set in Appalachia rather than Texas) and evokes the hardness and casual violence of life among the rural poor. Another film, probably even less well known, that covers similar territory is Searching For the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, the 2003 documentary directed by Andrew Douglas, also set in the Appalachian region.
If Joe has a fault it has nothing to do with the performances, which are all top notch, starting with Cage, who is in everything from silly Hollywood blockbusters to fascinating offbeat works such as Wild At Heart. The darkness and grimness of Joe, however, sometimes borders on parody. This is a world where no one even seems to have electricity, as most of the night scenes are shot in dim rooms (they do have TVs, though, so apparently the darkness is to maintain the mood). At one point, Joe gives Gary a windup clock so he can wake up for work -even basic timepieces are exotic in this neck of the woods.
Joe is a gripping, well-acted film that explores an America usually hidden from view. Though it ends on a tentatively upbeat, if appropriately somber note, it certainly won’t leave you feeling very positive about the prospects of the human species.
Directed by Debra Granik
Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus