"Joe" Review: Craig's First Take

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An ex-con, who is the unlikeliest of role models, meets a 15-year-old boy and is faced with the choice of redemption or ruin.
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Abusive drunken fathers, kids who need to grow up quicker than their years, bad men looking to prey, good men looking to just keep to themselves; yup, this is what we’ve come to expect from the South. It also seems to contribute to much of the work of author Larry Brown, who was chronicled in a documentary called “The Rough South of Larry Brown”. Gary Hawkins, who directed that doc, here adapts Brown’s “Joe” for the screen, but its Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, and director David Gordon Green who bring it to life.

Joe (Cage) is a manager of a crew sent in to clear away dead trees so that new ones can be planted. Joe seems a quiet man, most of his time spent away from work is at a whore house or drinking. On a particular day he meets a 15 year old kid named Gary (Sheridan) who is eager to work. Gary’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter, actually a homeless man turned actor who died shortly after the filming of this) is a useless drunk who beats on the kid, that is when he’s not demonstrating the Pop N’ Lock (well the pop, he’s so lazy and drunk he refuses to stand up to do the lock part) but Gary is determined to work in order to help his mother and sister out.

Cage is immensely good at finding the layers to Joe, a man running from a tragic past that haunts him still and opens the door to a lot of pent up rage. His first reaction to Gary’s situation is to understandably do nothing, as once that door is opened, it’s a tough one to shut. As a friendship blooms between the two people, it’s pretty easy to see where we’re headed though. He has great chemistry with Sheridan, a really promising young actor from “Mud” and “Tree of Life” who we are probably going to be seeing great things from down the road. Gary’s efforts to prove worthy in a world of men as well as his toughness whenever one tries to disrespect him are very compelling. And it’s also too bad that Poulter’s career was so short; he is one of several bad men here who give the film its menace.

But for Cage especially, who has had a rough go of in recently both financially and professionally, this is fantastic work that i’m glad he’s putting on the resume. The guy has had to take projects he probably wouldn’t ordinarily have done, many of which went direct to dvd and if he’s lucky most people probably didn’t even pay much attention to. But finally we have the actor everybody loves back.

But outside of the characters, this is the kind of rural drama that Green (“Prince Avalanche”, “Undertow”) usually does a great job with. Much like “Out of the Furnace”, we again see a small town in America devastated by an economy that has left many with nothing. The differences (like walking into a home and suddenly seeing someone skinning a deer) in attitudes also add to the authenticity. “Joe” isn’t anything that you haven’t seen before, but the tension and the characters are there and sometimes that’s really all you need.