David Gordon Green's Joe mines backwoods, hick territory, finding a slight narrative kinship with Jeff Nichols' Mud combined with the tonal darkness of Winter's Bone. The strongest thread holding the three films together is obviously the focus on down-on-their-luck families with bad dental hygiene, drinking problems and poor living conditions, all of which are traits I typically loathe. Narrative's of this sort typically prey on the built in sadness that comes with seeing hard luck families scraping to survive rather than developing actual characters, but every so often a few rise above the rest.
In this case Joe works and it doesn't. The tragic narrative has its hiccups along the way, but improves as it builds its story around two strong performances from Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan, elevating it slightly above similar exploitative white trash weepers.
The exact location is unknown, but the film takes place in Texas' Service County where we first meet young Gary Jones (Sheridan) and his abusive father, Wade (Gary Poulter). Wade is drunk pretty much the entire film and while Gary is loyal to his family, primarily for his mother and sister, the level of police involvement in this story and the fact they don't ever get involved in Gary's life is a little disconcerting. Gary, thankfully, finds some solace away from home in the unlikely form of 48-year-old Joe Ransom (Cage), an ex-con with a kind heart and his own share of troubles, most of which have to do with a temper he just can't seem to get under control.
Joe's business is a bit on the shady side as he has a crew that works for cash, heading out to the forest to poison trees so as to kill them off for the lumber company to come in, clear cut the land and plant new, more profitable timber. It isn't exactly legal, but it's work. Gary stumbles on Joe and his merry band and asks for a job to which Joe obliges and soon takes Gary under his wing, serving as the figurative father figure he never had.
The first half of the film sort of stumbles around this friendship and randomly injects details that will ultimately play a role in the final act, but seem to be forced into the story with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. For instance, the film's chief villain is an ill-developed rogue known as Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), whom Joe apparently slapped around a few nights earlier and is now back for revenge. Along with his problems with Joe, Willie even finds himself mixed up with Gary and his father at one point.
Additionally, Joe's past is hinted at and danced around while his penchant for prostitutes, drinking and cigarettes serves as little more than to build a series of vices, like his past, that he just can't shake.
These narrative details prove somewhat necessary in the end, but they aren't the reason the film works. The relationship between Joe and Gary is an easy one to create given the circumstances and the fact we're talking about a damaged ex-con who understands the responsibility in front of him in terms of serving as some sort of role-model for this young 15-year-old boy. This, however, is a relationship that can go awry quickly if Gordon Green had forced the issue, which he actually does with Gary's father in several instances, but the relationship between Gary and Joe remains authentic.
Cage is in rare form, playing the title character without an ounce of the wild man, over-actor we've seen in recent years. His anger exists within and he doesn't need to lose control for us to see what's going on underneath. An extended sequence where the two characters go in search of Joe's dog is the best the film has to offer. It doesn't rely on threats or crazy antics, but instead is just two people finding a connection.
When it comes to Tye Sheridan, here is a young actor we're going to be hearing from for a long, long time. His performance in Mud was strong, but I think he's much better here. Not only must he play the passive punching bag to his alcoholic father, he must embody the emotional acuity of a 15-year-old kid. Add to that a side that's entirely unexpected in a scene where he's confronted by Willie and Gary is a character requiring virtually every talent an actor has to offer.
The characters are what keep Joe strong because the narrative is a little choppy and all over the place with people introduced and never heard from again, even when Joe invites his dog into a local brothel to kill the madame's dog and is later seen licking up the blood from the dying carcass. That seemed to me like something that should have been addressed head on rather than in passing, but then again it was also a scene that didn't really need to exist at all. In short, Joe sometimes gets caught up in excess, but by the end I felt it largely worked with performances from Cage and Sheridan that make it worth seeing all on their own.