Joe populates a stretch of XL bible belted, confederate flag-waving backwoods Texas with rapists and murders of the worst degree, painting a picture so unrelenting bleak that a repeat drunk driver that spends his days in whore houses and/or dog fighting is our closest thing to a hero. It’s a place where slavery may as well have been yesteryear, where molestation lurks around every corner, where hope goes to die. It’s a small nowheresville of inexplicable evil. Like a flash sideways where Jack didn’t cork the Island’s malevolent juju (“Lost” reference alert). Joe lives in a land where morals come to roast on skewers and are snacked on by open-mouthed buffoons. This is Kentucky Fried hell. But even hell must have its fallen angels.
Joe is that fallen angel here, a “kind” man who takes up with ladies of the evening and employs the ex-cons that no-one else will take. He’s a hungover St. Peter safeguarding the Pearly gates of deforestation – because every Joseph Gordon Green movie needs a benign task. In Prince Avalanche, that task was spraying fresh center lines. Here, Joe and his (mostly African-American) compadres take hatchets that leak an arbor acid into trees. Because lumber.
During a good day of hacking and poisoning trees, lumpy-faced Gary shows up harboring a black eye from his recklessly alcoholic pappy and pleading for a job. For some reason, Gary seems to think that getting himself and his pa a job will lead to less alcohol-fueled beatings but he seems to have forgotten that he exists in Dante’s seventh circle of hell and nothing will stay the wrath of an unshaven drunk Joe find a bit of a surrogate son in the abused but diligent Gary just as Gary starts to see Joe as a bizarro guardian angel – a smokin’, drinkin’, whorin’ guardian angel. But such is Green’s world.
And such is Green’s issue. He paints all in shades of black: midnight black, ebony, deep charcoal, black olive black, onyx. Never one to second guess another licorice coat of grim, Green pulls the flusher and watches things spiral down the shitter. Le sigh. For Green, a matter of degree is no hurdle. One rapist isn’t enough, he needs a gang of them. An abusive father isn’t competently heinous, he also has to be a murderer. Joe’s sketchy relationship with the law ends up in not one, but two DUI standoffs. Each time things get “worse”, our emotional impact lessens. With Joe, Green forgets the impact of diminishing return. In a movie brimming with skeezy slimeballs, one more dogfight doesn’t add weight to the pig-pile. It makes it crumble.
Thankfully, Green has no less than four great performances to lean on. Tye Sheridan, who proved his worth in last year’s stellar Mud, is back to prove he’s a young actor of the highest degree. Sheridan throttles a line between man and child wherein we see the actions of a hardened adult spewing from a child’s body. That dichotomy itself is inherently heart-rending and Sheridan knows exactly how to milk that drama. Someone get this kid a momma.
The infamous Nicholas Cage is back giving a performance that hopes to wash the taste of (insert bad Nick Cage movie here) out of our mouths. His turn as the eponymous Joe harkens to his greater acting chapters, times where he proved his worth with the likes of Leaving Las Vegas, Bad Lieutenant, or dare I say Kick-Ass?. In Cage’s own words, this is the performance he wants to be remembered for. And for good reason. Joe is the kind of restrained performance that’s too rare from the undeniably talented actor. Although he finds it necessary to stuff his resume with three or four bad movies for every good one, his take as Joe will certainly be remembered as one of his finer roles.
Almost more impressive than Cage are Gary Poulter and Ronnie Gene Blevins. Who and who? Exactly. Poulter was a homeless man given the part by Green, who found him wandering the streets. His performance is unrelenting and downright terrifying at times. Tragically, Poulter died homeless, slinking the streets of Austin just months after filming his role. He never even witnessed his brief moment in the spotlight. Chalk another point onto the depressing side. While Blevins has had a far more rounded resume than Poulter, he’s still a name that inspires a “who?” A performance like this should change that. Every time he’s on screen, you never knows what could go down next. He’s the kind of guy who could turn a smile into a stab wound and for it is a perfect villainous presence. In this land strewn with criminals of the worst degree though, neither Poulter nor Blevins get quite as much screen time as they deserve.
Shouldering the picture, Poulter, Blevins, Cage and Sheridan are the savior of Green’s view of a broke down suburban hell hole. If only they weren’t always forced into such sketchy situations. Returning to the KFC analogy, Joe is a double-downer of a drama. When down and dirty becomes scoff-inspiring though, it’s ample time to pull back. No one on set dared remind Green. But even though Joe is grim enough to give you a black eye, it’s worth a watch for the performances alone and the many potent themes of economic depression and father-son relationships give it an extra kick to boot.