Based on the 1991 Larry Brown novel, Joe, written by Gary Hawkins and directed by David Gordon Green, unfolds in some ramshackle hamelt tucked in Texas backwoods, a place of trucks, dogs and guns, where most adults seem if not drunk then en route. The story drawn from this place is familiar but infused with immediacy, bracingly bleak, very much alive, a study in violence passed through genes and ordinary terrorized homes, a violence most prevalent in men and beasts men keep as companions. If I told you there’s also milky glimmers of human beauty in this place would you believe me?
You might if you know Green’s work. Last year’s lovely comic two-hander Prince Avalanche aside, Green spent the last decade straying ever-far from his distinctive, quirky and wonderstruck “regional” early features, his 2000 debut, George Washington, chief among them. The first moments of Joe already contain elements that instantly Green’s pre-Pineapple salad days: a kid, an adult, train tracks, rural penumbra—we’re back in the saddle! But we’re also dealing with a more mature Green. Joe features characteristic digressions and eccentricities: some dude lifting weights in a brothel, another skinning a deer while smoking a cigarette, a frail old hillbilly, played by a homeless man Green met at a bus stop, who gets evil-drunk and can barely get up, but can breakdance, at least with his upper body. None of these kooky interjections get in the way of telling Brown’s grim tale. Joe is most similar to Green’s Undertow—Green calls the film a contemporary western. Unlike George Washington’s overgrown North Carolina idyll, race matters here. There is a scene white man beats black man to death for pocket change and a bottle of rosé. Or maybe just to prove that he can.
That should give you an idea of the film’s milieu and tone and what it means in the story of its director, but I still need to tell you about what’s most remarkable in Joe. It is indeed a sort of western, with a plot involving an adolescent boy (Mud’s Tye Sheridan) trapped in a perilous home situation and bad men coming out of the past, but true to its title, Joe is also a character study, and its titular character is played by Nicholas Cage, doing some of the finest, most unaffected work of his career. In his Pantera tee, tattoos and big beard, Cage’s fearsomely intense Joe is an embodiment of damage done and held barley in check. He knows it’s restraint that keeps him alive, the capacity to channel rage, or at least nullify it with drugs and alcohol, maybe sex. He has a dog that needs to be kept on a leash, until it isn’t. He runs a small crew that kills trees for a living, poisoning entire forests for lumber companies looking to clear land and plant more profitable pines. (Joe is also, like Prince Avalanche, a film sensitive to working life.) Joe seems like a good boss and tries to do right by Sheridan’s troubled teen. At one point we see Joe nurse his own gunshot wound with duct tape. He’s a genuinely complex character, not just a wild clash of conceits concocted by Cage, who has himself described much of his more recent performances as “western Kabuki.” Joe’s the sort that you will surely feel some empathy for but may not ever want to actually know. In any case he’s the centre of this excellent film, one of the fiercest and most well-crafted American independents of 2014.