'Joe' a Fine Return to Small-Town Introspection from Green

Directed by: David Gordon Green; Runtime: 117 minutes
Grade: B

After several years of straightforward attempts at comedy following his success with Pineapple Express, director David Gordon Green returns to the realm of weighty small-town cinematic fables with Joe. Through the story of a functional yet volatile ex-con and the impoverished teenage boy who enters his life, Green's interest in exploring the many sides and conquests of his characters -- noble, ugly, tolerable, willfully neutral -- again meshes with the complications and limitations of a quaint rural atmosphere, where the law's limited reach and delayed response produces its share of inescapable trauma. Admittedly, there isn't much that Green's film touches on that hasn't been thoroughly and more adeptly mined in other films centered on unlikely, gruff role-model figures to mistreated coming-of-age children; however, its tonally complex responses to Joe's attitude towards his work, the law, and how he controls his more volatile impulses makes for a frequently captivating depiction of a flawed man with noble intentions.

Out of the starting gate, David Gordon Green reintroduces us to the austere drama that hallmarked moments in his previous films, centering on a young teenager, Gary (Tye Sheridan), chastising his father (Gary Poulter) on the ledge of a train track for being a troublesome, neglectful drunk ... and getting slugged in the face as a reply. This sets the mood for when the desperate kid stumbles onto a tree-clearing worksite and encounters Joe (Nicolas Cage), the rough-around-the-edges yet accommodating boss at the head of the operation. Despite being hospitable to Gary's inquiries about work and the respect he garners from the town's locals, the story gradually reveals more about Joe's less-savory attributes and his constant battle with rage, informing the moments when we learn about his past in prison and his rivalry with an unhinged local (Ronne Gene Blevens). These two sides inevitably collide as Gary's home life deteriorates further, nudging Joe in the difficult position of tapping into his rage and getting emotionally invested in a situation that could land him in irreparable trouble.

From walks along train tracks to the unorganized clutter of convenience stores and the inelegant rusticity of a local brothel, the film captures a realistically embellished glimpse at the interlocking parts of environments that harbor ex-cons like Joe and volatile homes like Gary's. Director Green attentively searches his scenes through Tim Orr's sublime cinematography for rays of beauty and poetry within the mundane, down to the sunset-bathed shots of workers -- including an enthusiastic Gary -- hitting trees with poisoned axes and clearing brush with machetes, showcasing his extended influence from Terrence Malick while exploring Joe's subtle shifts in temperament. It's the kind of atmosphere where somewhat slack and tolerant law enforcement is believable until circumstances force their hand, like when gunfire goes off and brawls break out in musty bars. Granted, there's not a lot of ground covered here that hasn't been hiked across in other backwater dramas like Winter's Bone, but Green's approach is admirable in its poetic grasp on self-preservation and scraping by.

There are two sides to the drama conveyed in Joe, with the rapport between the namesake lead character and the teenage boy reluctantly taken under his wing as the most absorbing of them. While adapting Larry Brown's early-'90s book of the same name, predating the likes of Mud, director Green emphasizes only subtle differences within Joe and Gary's relationship to other contemporary films of its breed: it's another impulsive former (potentially still current) criminal who becomes an impressionable force on a neglected teenager, leading to mutually beneficial impacts on one another amid a complex sense of camaraderie. The difference lies in Joe's functionality, whose employment and relatively tame social life -- excluding the trips to the brothel and the bottle-glass fights -- offers a uniquely positive source of energy for Gary in the sparse rural locale. It's a great role that almost feels built for Nicolas Cage, since the intensity in his eyes and his innate kinetic energy work well constrained within a man struggling with the law and bridling his violent tendencies with a bottle of liquor in hand ... until his darker side, and flickers of Cage's signature wildness, takes hold. He's convincing as a blemished yet noble soul, and it's easy to believe that he's the type who owns a troublesome bulldog he loves and allows a woman to share his bed in exchange for protection.

Gary's father, the source of the film's conflict, is the other side of Joe that walks on shakier, albeit compelling, ground. Since the foundation for the drama resides on the boy's quarrels with his father and his compulsion to weather the bad for the sake of his family, it becomes difficult to embrace the story as more gets revealed about the old man. Turns out, his boozy volatility towards Gary ends up only being the tip of the iceberg, where he's painted into a psychotic sociopath instead of merely an abrasive drunk with commitment issues; the things he does with his daughter and a homeless stranger for the sake of money and alcohol goes well beyond questioning what the hell's wrong with him, to the point of pure villainy. Despite a disturbingly genuine performance from the late Gary Poulter -- the homeless man whose appearance and attitude fits the twisted father perfectly -- the content built around his actions overreaches Joe's symbolic objectives about impoverished life and addiction, even if his outbursts ultimately linger in the mind and partially fascinate with the depth of his warped intentions.

There's a plan in motion for the film's unyielding intensity, though, where the wickedness rippling from Gary's father -- bolstered by Joe's rivalry with a gun-toting local, another trigger for his anger and a predictable source of frustration later on -- builds towards a conclusion that underscores David Gordon Green's fondness for the mythic possibilities of a rural setting. Layers of steadfast drama stack atop one another through the characters' responses to their individual conflicts, which creates a compelling synergy between the slow simmer of Joe's rage and the dangerous dead-end of Gary's turbulent home life if he doesn't interject. Everything folds together into this surprisingly bittersweet, if unsubtle, endgame from the director, pushing the envelope with tension and broad-stroked themes of personal sacrifice above cool-headed practicality, hinged on this unlikely anti-hero's growth and grasp on the unavoidable. Green once again finds haunting and hopeful elegance in these bleakest of scenarios, and he's proven with Joe that the cluttered, unrefined drama of mottled Americana is his wheelhouse.

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