David Gordon Green’s Joe revolves around a good but flawed man trying to do right but often defeated by his own limitations. The film is based on Larry Brown’s novel of the same title, set in rural Mississippi though Green has shifted the action to contemporary Texas.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a hardworking and likeable man, respected by his work crew. In fact, Joe seems to be liked and respected by almost everyone, from his men to the prostitutes at the local bordello via the grocery shopkeeper – even the sheriff’s men like him, despite the occasional grief he gives them. There is one man in town not so enamoured of Joe: Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins). Willie and Joe’s first encounter on film is when Willie takes a pot shot at Joe. We later learn that this is such an old feud Joe can no longer remember its origins but we are aware that neither man will be satisfied with a truce.
Joe is joined on his team by the fifteen-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan). Gary and his father Wade (Gary Poulter) open the film, sitting on the railway tracks as this young man admonishes his father for his past misdemeanours, warning him that he will pay a heavy price for his latest misconduct. Immediately afterwards, we see Wade receiving a sound beating. What with Joe and Willie’s feud, and Wade’s drunken violence, this is surely a chronicle of a death foretold.
Green has chosen to include locally sourced non-professional actors and in this his film shares something with Roberto Minervini’s Texan trilogy of films, as well as Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. One of the most inspired casting choices was Gary Poulter, a homeless man living on the streets of Austin, who gives one of the most terrifying and all too human performances as the violent, bitter drunk, a seething pit of anger and evil. Sheridan, who we’ve previously seen in Mud and The Tree of Life, is excellent as Gary. This is a boy trying hard to keep his family together, caring for his sister and mum, putting up with his father’s abuse and beatings when he could so easily run away from it all. Sheridan and Cage share a wonderful sense of camaraderie on screen, Joe acting as the caring, paternal figure so lacking in Gary’s life.
Cage excels as Joe here: amongst all of the larger-than-life southern characters in the film, Cage’s performance seems almost subdued and he is completely convincing. Interestingly, his character’s surname is Ransom: Joe is being held to ransom by his actions in the past, whether it’s his time in prison or the disappearance of his wife and child from his life. Though a little too heavy on the southern clichés and perhaps a little erratic at times, Joe is a quality film with admirable performances from its three main characters and supporting cast.