“Joe” is the movie that will make you remember how good Nicolas Cage once was and can be again.
A Southern Gothic tale of alcohol, violence, sin and redemption, this David Gordon Green film gives Cage his finest showcase in years. A harbinger of better things to come, now that he’s hit 50? Probably not. But it’s good to see he still has his curveball.
Joe in the film is damaged, resigned to the violent streak he knows he must “restrain,” even at 48. His love of cheap bourbon means he’s never without a bottle — at home, at work or on the road.
He drinks alone. But he’s willing to make his living by extending a job and a friendly hand to impoverished men, some alcoholics, like himself, men clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder in the corner of rural Texas they all share.
Joe runs a day-labor work crew that clears brush and poisons commercially undesirable trees for a big timber company. He loads up his battered pickup with machetes, “juice hatchet” poison dispensers and eight or so African American down-and-outers every morning that the sun is shining, and they do what the rules-bending timber company wants them to do.
Joe is tough, a man who knows his way around a knife, a bottle, a brothel and a pistol. He minds his own business and keeps a pit bull chained up in front of his tumbledown house to make sure others let him.
He has a history, which the movie only hints at — a life he couldn’t hang onto that must have involved a family, trouble with the law and local troublemakers who still hate his guts.
Maybe that’s why he takes pity on Gary. The kid (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”) is only 15, but he’s got it rough. His old man (Gary Poulter) is a brutish, aged drunk who keeps his drifting family around him even though he has no intentions of supporting them. They’re there, living in squalor, for him to steal from when they have money and to beat when they don’t fork it over.
Joe gives Gary work. And the kid comes to treat this violent, short-fused alcoholic as a role model, a straight shooter who only insists he look him in the eye and consider him a friend.
Green, an Arkansas native who made “Undertow” and “All the Real Girls” before Hollywood turned him loose on “Pineapple Express” and “The Sitter,” has an eye for worn Southern faces, and he fills this film with non-actors who have the potbellies, tortured grammar and bad teeth of rural Southern poverty.
There’s rage here, bottled up until, like their latest liquor purchase, it is uncorked. At this level of society, race takes a back seat to focusing on your own daily struggle — to make a little money, get a little liquor, stay out of jail and reach another sunrise.
In houses where old newspapers cover holes in the walls, where everything that wore out or breaks beyond your limited capacity to repair (cars, trailers, appliances) is left in the yard, everybody has a gun and a willingness to use it. Violence hangs over the bars and every conversation and encounter carries a hint of menace. Who will snap? What will they do when they do?
His down-and-out work crew knows to “keep it real, with Joe.” So does most everyone else in town, from Coleman the grocer to the high-mileage madam at the local brothel (Sue Rock). They know his heart. But they also know his moods.
“So, what you got the blues over, Joe?”
Cage, beefy and gray-bearded, moves with ease through this world where Joe can share a drink with “Blind George,” help neighbors skin a deer (they do it in their ruin of a kitchen) or take in the trashy but loving Connie (Adriene Mishler), who needs a break from her mother and her mother’s scumbag boyfriend.
Cage suggests a man who knows he has demons and longs to control them, but is too old to lose his contempt for those who won’t let him do what he wants.
Green, working from a Gary Dawkins script based on Larry Brown’s novel, has created Joe’s world from movie memory — a lot of “Undertow,” a little “Prince Avalanche” — and the simple knowledge of what you find if you get far enough away from the cities and the interstates in the Deep South. The setting, characters and story reek of authenticity.
And most authentic of all are Wade, the stumbling but cunning old man, and Joe, outwardly kind but a powder keg who never named his dog because to him, a pit bull is merely another instrument of violence.
Poulter, a real-life homeless man who wears a hard life in every wrinkle on his weathered face, has eyes that give away cutthroat cunning and guilty resignation. He died after filming this.
And Cage, playing Joe close to the vest, gets across a character and a code that he and we know will be tested by Gary and Gary’s family. Cage lets us see the struggle and envision the reckoning to come as only a man with Joe’s mysterious history can.