The roots of violence take many forms in director David Gordon Green’s stellar Southern crime drama, “Joe.”
First and foremost, there’s the near-comical levels to which the eponymous lead (played by Nicolas Cage) goes to in trying to prevent himself from going over the edge when dealing with others — supremely self-aware of his propensity for going off on someone, whether it’s a police officer or someone close to him.
Alone, his presence would represent a dramatic powder keg that routinely has its fuse lit and extinguished, each time building up the tension with each encounter — it may not be the precise definition of a “slow burn,” but it’s just as effective.
But “Joe” is not simply about Cage’s character trying to control his temper in the face of holding together a crew of laborers devoted to poisoning forests to make way for new, more-profitable growth. He is the balance between the truly awful people in the world and the innocent, the latter represented by transient teenager Gary (Tye Sheridan), who wants nothing more than to make some money for his family while his barely coherent, alcoholic father Wade (portrayed by the late Gary Poulter, who himself was homeless when cast for the role) represents the former — a man stumbling through the world with just enough energy to muster contempt for his son and a beating for anyone unfortunate enough to have something he wants.
Some of the most powerful moments in “Joe” consist of supremely organic and likely unscripted moments among the numerous non-actors Gordon-Green selected for the supporting cast around Cage and Sheridan. In one scene, the irascible and often undecipherable Wade is called out by Joe’s crew chief Junior (played by another non-actor, Brian Mays) for being lazy after a day’s work. While their spat will seem like an incomprehensible bit of cacophony to some, viewers with the right set of ears for Southern diction will recognize it as regional authenticity, a level of realness in a fictional story that doesn’t always come through in films with A-list Hollywood stars such as Cage in the lead role.
And indeed, a lot of what happens in “Joe” will end up being either too backwoods for many audience members to discern — namely, Cage giving an impromptu lesson on field-dressing a deer for venison steaks — or too dark for their tastes (although the opening shot of Wade smacking Gary for calling him out for being a drunk lowlife should be ample warning). Even Cage’s knack for finding humor in deeply flawed characters doesn’t take the edge of the story here, which descends into a kind of rugged horror as Wade gets more violent as Gary becomes more and more secure in being his own man with Joe as the father figure he sorely lacks, even though Joe himself would admit that there’s a lot about him that no one should emulate.
Perhaps the only truly thing that’s off about “Joe” is the peripheral villain character of Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a scarred-up ne’er-do-well with a score to settle with Joe who is all too keen on helping Wade exploit those around him for a quick buck. His rants about his own hard past, while quite fitting for a man doing a heck of a lot of posturing in this violent landscape, become tired after he repeats himself a second time.
Otherwise, the ebb and flow between the savagery of “Joe” and its understated mirth are pitch perfect; it should be jarring, but Cage holds both threads together with one of his best performances in some time. Credit also should be given to cinematographer Tim Orr’s photo work, which helps mute any natural beauty in these proceedings to steep the viewer in the grime of this world and the stained souls of those who live in it.
While it’s fair to invoke the Coen Bros. and their vein of darkly comedic on-screen sadism when talking about “Joe,” it seems all the more apt to say that Gordon-Green’s latest film is perhaps his best since 2002’s “George Washington,” which had similar themes about youth, violence and the lack of nurturing from society. Whatever parallels you draw, it remains one of the best films of the year thus far.
“Joe” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 58 minutes. Four and a half stars out of five.