David Gordon Green, it appears, has sweated out whatever troglodyte fever inspired him to detour into grossout comedies. Hailed as a successor to Terrence Malick (or at least a skilled acolyte) for his 2000 debut George Washington, Green in recent years had fallen in with a bad crowd of dudebros, hitting his nadir with the stoner romp Your Highness. As if putting away childish things, though, Green has rebounded with the seriocomic Prince Avalanche and now the grim Southern gothic Joe. The Malick influence obtains here, too, showing us what it might be like if Malick’s camera caressed the swamplands and itinerants’ detritus of Texas instead of its suburbs and plains. Green, however, gives us more finely-etched characters than Malick can. Adapting a Larry Brown novel, Green and scripter Gary Hawkins hang out in the morning chill and evening swelter of the rural south, observing without comment.
Nicolas Cage, sweating out his own schlocky fever, plays the eponymous Joe as a man weighed down by his own past (violence, prison time) and his temper that keeps threatening to make his past the present. Joe supervises a crew of men who poison trees so that new ones can be planted — a perhaps too on-the-nose metaphor for godforsaken communities like Joe’s, plundered and abandoned and financially butchered. A local 15-year-old, Gary (Tye Sheridan), emerges from the woods and asks for a job on Joe’s crew. Gary seeks money almost as much as he needs a reason to get out of the house, away from his out-of-it mother and his vicious drunk of a father.
Gary Poulter plays the father, Wade, a backwoods boogeyman whose veins seem to be pumping with cold acid; he beats Gary, steals from him, and later does even more irredeemably beastly things. Poulter was one of several actors in Joe who have no previous film credits; a homeless man, he was found by Green on the streets of Austin, and died there before the film was released. If Poulter only had this one performance in him, it was a stellar one to come in with and go out on. Wade is vile, but Poulter somehow locates the sad humanity in him. We’re seeing the wreckage of too much booze crossed with too many bad brain chemicals — the man Gary will probably never be but Joe is ever vigilant against becoming. Two other inexperienced actors — Aj Wilson McPhaul as a sympathetic sheriff and Brian Mays as Joe’s right-hand man on the crew — bring effortless authority and reality to the movie. Joe is full of amazing camera faces, such as a homeless man (Elbert Hill Jr.) who unfortunately crosses paths with Wade. As in George Washington, Green deftly casts local non-actors for the authenticity — the palpable sense of having lived hard — they offer.
Does the movie really need the stinky psycho Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a grudge against Joe and ultimately joins forces with Wade? It threatens to tip Joe into conventional thriller territory, and surrounding Joe with mean men he wants to differentiate himself from is sort of gilding the lily. It gives Cage fresh raw meat to chew on, though, and he consistently underplays. We don’t catch him cartoonishly straining to keep a lid on his rage, as in Wild at Heart or the Ghost Rider movies. Cage here is closer to the ballpark of Nick Nolte in Affliction, forever haunted by the ghost of his own DNA.
Joe isn’t flawless — I’d file it on the “poky but compelling” shelf — but it’s a real movie, for grown-ups, fighting for table scraps in a marketplace dominated by spider-men and x-persons. It arises from a genuine wounded artistic sensibility; it respects talk and sadness and the irresolution of life. It’s also a man-cave movie, where women are whores or drunks and innocence is represented by Gary’s nonverbal sister, though they’re also seen to be living inside an apocalyptic reality created in large part by corrupt and violent men. (What I said about Cormac McCarthy’s The Counselor also holds true here: Joe isn’t a feminist work but it really isn’t masculinist either.) Thematically the movie is simplistic but sound — sometimes the two go together — and Green, along with ace cinematographer Tim Orr, finds the beauty in the squalor in which these people love and hate and work and kill. It’s a work of quiet substance.