Opens Fri., April 18 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated R. 117 minutes.
Yes, Nicolas Cage can still act. I don’t understand why people even ask that question. Nobody counts movies like Drive Angry or Ghost Rider—I mean, not people who read newspapers. Those flicks can be ignored as cash infusions Cage needed for his bankers, for the private Caribbean islands, French chateaux, and Ferraris. But for the rest of us there’s an enduring archipelago of quality Cage roles, from Raising Arizona to his Oscar-winning Leaving Las Vegas to Adaptation and the Bad Lieutenant reboot. Despite questionable career choices, his talent has never been in doubt, and he deploys it fully in this small, familiar Texas tale of a tormented loner and a vulnerable teen.
The 1991 source novel Joe was written by the late Larry Brown, a Mississippi fireman-turned-author whose Big Bad Love was filmed in 2001. Brown was very much a regionalist, a close observer of the working-class South, and the spirit of his book is certainly honored by the ever-eclectic director David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche, Pineapple Express). (As usual, Tim Orr is his indispensable cinematographer.) Green cast many roles here from the Austin streets, which lends even more texture to the simple story of Joe (Cage) mentoring 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan of Mud and The Tree of Life). An ex-con and hard-liver, Joe is kind to dogs, whores, and the all-black forestry crew he employs. When Gary begs for a job, he can see the kid needs help: Gary’s family is homeless; his mother has the vacant eyes of an addict; his little sister is mute; and his father is a violent, scary drunk. (In that role, Green cast a homeless man, Gary Poulter, who drank himself to death after filming. His implacable performance is amazing; no scene I’ve watched this year is so chilling as his slow, shuffling pursuit of another wino—two sad derelicts intent on a bottle that only one of them will drink.)
Green and his players bring plenty of rural color to Joe’s old-as-parchment story: Joe butchering a deer in the middle of a kitchen; his visits to the world’s most inept brothel; his easy banter with the forestry crew (all non-pros); and the “pain-face” lesson he gives Gary (which is really just Cage showing us his methods). When Joe is shot, he dresses the wound with paper towels and electrical tape. Everyone’s down-and-out, but nobody’s complaining. A certain dignity is afforded to almost all these characters, even Gary’s father. Green never stoops to a trailer-trash-Gothic treatment of Brown’s hardscrabble survivors. Says Joe of his temper, “What keeps me alive is restraint,” and restraint is what makes Cage so excellent here.