Joe has a past.
As portrayed by Nicolas Cage, the titular character in David Gordon Green's observational drama/thriller/Western/coming-of-age/redemption story (with plenty of dark humor) is a bearded, slightly puffy man clearly trying to better himself. He keeps an eternally barking dog tied-up tight, a vicious symbol of what lurks within, but to many he is a kind and clever working man.
Cage runs an off-the-books crew of tree poisoners (stay with me) and the freewheeling moments of the team at work, running their mouths as they swing their axes, is some of the best off-the-cuff scenes you are likely to see in a movie this year. There is an unforced camaraderie that Green's camera captures, stitched together with music and a remarkable ear for vernacular. The gang is there because a real estate concern can't plant the big trees they want until these old, useless ones are gone.
As Joe is sharpening his knife we cut a young teen doing the same. Is this meant to be a flashback? No, it is local kid Gary (Tye Sheridan), son of a wretched, mean drunk who opens the film with an ominous prologue. Soon Gary has joined the crew and, in time, Joe realizes that the boy is in desperate need for a father figure. Joe is hesitant to fill that role. He has problems of his own - a temper which he quirkily keeps in check by getting himself arrested. There's also a scarred man (Ronnie Gene Blevins in the Garrett Dillahunt role) who is out for Joe's head for some mysterious reason.
We know we're on some sort of path to violence, but along the way there is plenty of time for laughs (Cage gets some outrageous lines here, and he doesn't ham it up too badly) as well as some evocative, cinematic interludes. As with his recent "Prince Avalanche," Green proves himself to be a master of cutting gorgeous footage to melancholy music. Sequences of Joe drinking or carousing with prostitutes takes on an introspective edge that would be far more diffuse presented in any other way.
"I can't promise you much, but I'll try to be nice" is a fairly typical example of the heartbreaking honestly on display here. These are desperate, wounded people, but by and large everyone is trying to help. There's a scene of Joe helping his friends cut up a deer that is a little gross, but still warm, and this town has the nicest prostitutes you've ever seen. "Joe" features a rural esprit de coeur that you rarely see on screen outside of John Sayles films.
Gary's father (Gary Poulter) is a unique spin on the brutal monster. He's never shown in anything other than the most wretched light and he's fascinating to watch. Joe sees how just a few missteps on Gary's part could send him to prison where he'd end up just like Joe. . .a man clinging desperately to his humanity to not become another violent drunkard. Something has to break the cycle.
When David Gordon Green came on the scene with "George Washington" he showed himself to have a knack with unknown actors and realistic voices. "Joe" practically slips into documentary in some of its scenes. Cage, not one known for subtlety of late, is truly great in this sad, funny and tender role. The film ultimately comes together as a striking character meditation, wisely leaving much of the plot elliptical. Mixing genres is one of the hardest things to do in cinema, but "Joe" makes it work.
SCORE: 8.0 / 10