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).
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.