Nic Cage brings a dose of his tough guy action hero to David Gordon Green's soulful Southern western.
A heartfelt anti-booze polemic encased within a lazy-eyed Deep South western, David Gordon Green's Joe is as straight an appropriation of rueful revenge saga dynamics as The Sitter was of the bawdy mainstream comedy. The film also works as a bleak Yin to Prince Avalanche's romantic Yang, demolishing the vile effects of excessive alcohol consumption where that previous film extolled its heady virtues.
Populated by hateful, scowling goons and gin-soaked ne'erdowells who are incapable of redemption, Green syphons off all potential empathy and lands it directly on Nicolas Cage's eponymous, kindly foreman and ex-con, a loveable grizzly bear who doesn't want to bear his claws, but often finds he has to.
Cage's Joe is a man plagued by doubt and suffering, even though he's largely beloved by the entire small-town community. He has a job, a decent income, a killer guard dog and has become a go-to shoulder to cry on in times of trouble. Yet, there's something gnawing at him, something he has to sate with an omnipresent quart of liquor. And it's when he's taken the firewater that things start to get a little loco. Green, thankfully, doesn't overload Joe's character with bloated backstory, allowing the viewer to piece together his past from the telling details on show.
Akin to the large majority of David Gordon Green's cinematic back catalogue, Joe is about the world of men — men who barely flinch when they take a piece of buckshot to the gut, who lope around in faded Pantera tees, who drive with a one hand on the wheel and the other on a cold brewski. Harking back to classic westerns, much of the plot is driven by antiquated codes of honour, and the film's scenes of violence stem from petty just deserts meted out in return for very minor humiliations.
From it's opening shot of feisty lickspittle Gary (Tye Sheridan) chiding his revolting boozehound pops before receiving a nasty right hook, there's a sense of utter hopelessness in Joe, that there is nothing that can be done to save these souls. Even the police seem to be powerless to prevent the churning bloodlust that fills the waste-strewn countryside.
Green is at his best when working with non-professionals, and the verité, seemingly off-the-cuff inserts of black workers conversing while clearing a pine forest make for fascinating viewing. And, as with similar scenes in his All The Real Girls, he manages to submerge them gently into the outer casing of the plot, cleverly meshing together gritty docu-realism with Boy's Own genre fantasy.
That said, the fluency of the storytelling isn't always up to snuff, and Green is prone to inserting in spurious single-serving scenes which feel like they're there to artificially bolster the character motivations. One unsubtle (but admittedly powerful in its own right) aside sees Gary's father go to crazed lengths to unduly apprehend half-a-bottle of rosé wine from a stumbling transient, and you can almost hear Green whispering the technical particulars of the character development into our ears.
Also, there are moments where the character of Joe fails to make sense. His supposedly temperate and fatherly demeanour is left for naught when he's being hustled by the cops. Even after he's spent a night in the cells and he knows Gary could be in danger from his father, he still choses to start a fight with a young traffic cop. Cage manages to hold things together, but it can't help stifle the feeling that Joe doesn't always add up.