Nicolas Cage has for so long seemed a parody of himself that it’s a minor shock to realize that an Oscar-winning actor still lurks beneath the scenery chewing.
As the title character of the rural-Texas drama “Joe,” Cage shows he’s still got it, delivering an indelible portrait of a small-town ex-con trying to get through life without falling back into the violence that almost ruined his life.
The bearded, laconic Joe contracts with a big lumber concern to scour company forest land, poisoning trees that are of no commercial value to make way for new seedlings. He has a crew of workers — unsophisticated, rural black men, mostly — with whom he does a neat balancing act, being both the man who writes the paychecks and just one of the guys.
Gary Hawkins’ screenplay (adapting Larry Brown’s novel) isn’t densely plotted. It’s more of an extended character study.
Joe lives outside town in a nondescript farmhouse. A pit bull on a chain lives beneath the porch. He tends to drink alone at the local bar. He’s hasn’t got a regular girl — although halfway through he allows a local gal to stay with him until her trouble at home blows over. He’s known by his first name at the seedy whorehouse outside town.
At the same time, Joe appears always ready to do a good deed for someone even more hapless at negotiating life than he is. He’s no Chamber of Commerce poster boy, but he tries to keep his nose clean and do right by others.
Joe’s newest employee is 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan of “Mud”), who has blown into town with his parents and younger sister. Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter) is a mean alcoholic drifter who regularly beats his wife and son. He works on the crew for one day, spends most of it loafing, and isn’t invited back.
Gary, though, hits a chord with Joe. He’s a smart, decent, hard-working kid who needs to catch a break.
We learn later on that Joe has a child from whom he is estranged — in fact, he must learn from a drinking buddy that he’s now a grandfather. Having Gary around revives Joe’s parental inclinations — maybe he can improve this kid’s life, if only for a bit.
“Joe” is a curious blend of uber-realistic mis-en-scene — the interplay between Joe’s crew members is absolutely convincing — and hillbilly/operatic plotting.
By taking Gary under his wing, Joe incurs the wrath of the boy’s venal old man. At the same time, he’s got a feud going with a local creep (Ronnie Gene Blevins) that will suck in young Gary as well. And through it all Joe has to walk a fine line — as an ex-con he’s a perennial target for ambitious young cops.
“Joe” was directed by David Gordon Green, who divides his time between big mass-audience comedies (“The Pineapple Express”) and arty indie fare usually set at the fringes of the blue collar world. His “Prince Avalanche,” featuring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a couple of highway workers (again, in rural Texas), was the most criminally underappreciated film of last year.
Though Cage is terrific here, I’m not buying everything in “Joe.” It doesn’t surprise me to learn that Poulter, who plays Gary’s father, was a homeless man recruited by Gordon from the streets of Austin. Poulter certainly looks the part of a rootless alkie, but he’s a limited actor and fails to base his character’s cruelty in anything substantive. Rather than creating a character he just plays himself, doing what the script tells him to do. I never quite believed it.
But there’s a final tragic postscript to all this. Two months after filming “Joe,” Poulter was found dead. While intoxicated he had collapsed face down in shallow water near a homeless campground beneath a bridge in Austin.