Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter
Director: David Gordon Green
There’s a moment in Joe when a drive-by shooter puts a bullet in Nicolas Cage’s titular character’s shoulder and you think the story’s going to go in a History of Violence direction. But Joe just patches himself up with gaffer tape and forgets about it. You can’t go around taking umbrage at every little thing. Or, as he puts it at one point, “I know what keeps me alive is restraint.”
The setting of David Gordon Green’s film (based on a novel by Larry Brown) is the impoverished rural South, a place where people live in crumbling shacks and where everyone has guns and guard dogs and grudges. Joe runs a crew who clear land by killing trees with pesticide. Gruff but kindly and decent, he takes on Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old boy from white trash parents. Soon his attitude towards the boy becomes more paternal, which makes it hard for him to sit by and watch Gary being beaten up and harangued by his mean old drunk of a father, Wade (Gary Poulter).
But then, Joe has problems of his own. Having served a term in jail, he doesn’t trust his own temper, and a few of the local police are only too eager to test him. Plagued by feelings of helplessness about the poverty and suffering around him, he knows that these impulses could be his downfall.
Green has a patient way with his material. The film is part character study, part portrait of a place and of a forgotten underclass, his camera a discreet observer, non-threatening, non-judgemental. Tensions bubble beneath a gentle flow of episodes – visits to the whorehouse (about the only thriving local concern), lessons in how to cut the perfect butterfly steak from a deer that happens to be hanging in someone’s living room. Stars Cage and Sheridan are mixed with non-actors to achieve a gritty authenticity – Cage’s crew were played by real day labourers, and Gary Poulter, cast as Wade, was a homeless man whom Green happened to spot (sadly, he passed away shortly after the film wrapped). Poulter cuts an almost unbearable figure of suffering and degradation – it can be hard to follow his toothless drawl, but the stricken state of his body speaks loud and clear. The scenes where he’s off by himself, hunting that next bottle of booze, are among the most harrowing in the entire movie.
There’s just a touch of voyeurism in this brand of realism perhaps, but there’s no denying that it draws from Cage one of his best performances in years, full of gravitas and weary humour. And brutal as some of the movie is, Green, like his central character, exercises restraint, hinting that what he hasn’t shown is far worse than what he has (there’s a scene, quite late on, where Gary reveals, almost casually, that his sister has lost the power of speech, and Joe is stunned, wondering what horrors have been going on in that decayed hovel of theirs). Sensitive and serious, bleak but robustly humane, Joe makes you feel like hell is a country road and that you’ve walked that road yourself.
The DVD comes with a brief but interesting 10-minute featurette, in which Green talks about his unusual approach to film-making and his search for honesty on screen, and in which we also learn that the snake that Nicolas Cage waves around in one scene was a highly poisonous cottonmouth.