From the same director who brought us such eclectic offerings as George Washington (2000) and stoner comedy Pineapple Express (2008), David Gordon Green’s rural noir Joe (2013) – based on Larry Brown’s grit-lit novel – stars Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom, a man who, in the words of Johnny Cash, “Won’t back down”. Joe leads a work crew clearing trees so the land can be cultivated, and spends his evenings slumped on his sofa, at local dice games or at the whorehouse. Along the way he befriends Gary (Tye Sheridan, previously seen in The Tree of Life and Jeff Nichols’ Mud), a homeless stray who washes up at a derelict house with his sister, mother and abusive father, Wade (Gary Poulter).
Gary works hard, earns money and looks up to Joe as a real man – the father he always wanted (again, the comparisons with Nichols’ Mud are more than warranted). However, Joe has what might be labelled anger and authority issues. He tussles with a local tough and it becomes apparent that he’s done jail time. Can Joe find in Gary a connection with the world? And can he protect Gary from Wade? Green has rightly earned himself a reputation as an incredibly dexterous filmmaker – the occasional Your Highness-style misfire aside – and Joe will only serve to elevate this view further. The cultural and physical environment of the South is captured by Green with the vivid immediacy of a documentary; everything has a lived-in, run-down quality, the rooms filled with scuttlebutt gossip and spurious rumour.
In its focus on the dirt poor surviving at the raw edges of American society, Joe is reminiscent of Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone (2010) and, more recently, Dennis Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines (2012). As with the latter, Green’s latest traffics in a more generic territory, using the techniques of the social realist. The crime fiction elements are increasingly prominent in the second half of the film, and though the plot becomes more predictable and indeed inevitable given the set up, the attachment we feel for the characters makes for a gripping finale. Poulter – who sadly died shortly after filming was completed – is frighteningly convincing as Gary’s father, Wade. Elsewhere, Joe’s crew, his friends and even the grocery store owner all have the feel of people who’ve been smashed by life and yet still somehow endure.
Naturally, a lot of attention will deservedly go to the film’s two excellent leads. Sheridan cements his growing ‘rising star’ rep, whilst Cage continues his pattern of periodically rescuing his credibility with a fine turn. His Joe is a quietly seething jail sentence waiting to happen, a working stiff who sees the good in people and loves his dog, but can’t abide wrong and hates the guard hound at the local brothel: “He’s an asshole dog.” Joe is ultimately a tragic figure of self-destruction and lost potential, a man who knows his weaknesses but is unable to change his ways. With an air of an old Jim Thompson novel, Joe is a grungy thriller with a surprisingly tender heart.
This review was first published on 1 September 2013 as part of our extensive Venice Film Festival coverage last year.