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JOE (2014) – The Review

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This story of a surly ex-con whose encounter with an almost-teenage version of himself is a return to more modest roots for men in front of and behind the camera in this new release. The star of JOE (in case you’re wondering, this is not a remake of the 1970 urban revenge thriller that starred Peter Boyle as the title character) is Nicolas Cage, who has often become an internet punchline (“Is he a vampire?” and endless “maniac, freak-out” montages) recently. After establishing himself as an off-beat character actor through the 1980′s , he won an Oscar as a boozing writer on a march toward death in LEAVING LAS VEGAS. This lead to a series of big-budget action films with only an occasional foray into the unusual (ADAPTATION, MATCHSTICK MEN). He even entered the Marvel movie universe, starring in two GHOST RIDER flicks. But with this new role, he’s squarely back in low (or no) budget independent film territory. Guiding him is writer/director David Gordon Green who made his debut a dozen or so years ago with heavy dramas about the underclasses like GEORGE WASHINGTON and UNDERTOW, but then expectantly he took a bit of a detour  to “Apatow-land” with the stoner comedies PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, YOUR HIGHNESS, and THE SITTER. Just last year he made a bit of a U-turn with the odd, two-character indie PRINCE AVALANCHE. Now Green and Cage have teamed up for a tale of remorse and redemption that should remind movie audiences of their considerable screen talents.

As JOE begins we first meet a fifteen year-old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan) as he verbally reprimands his disinterested, grizzled father Wade (Gary Poulter) who responds by slapping his son across the face. We’re then introduced to the title character, Joe (Cage) as he begins his work day. The ex-con’s been hired (under the table and paid in cash) by a lumber company to prepare the nearby forest for re-planting. The company can’t legally cut down the old, withered trees, so Joe loads up his truck with locals picked up outside a bait/convienance store, drives to said forest, and, with his crew, poisons the trees by using backpacks full of toxic chemicals connected via hoses to hatchets (the guys liken themselves to “ghostbusters”). At the end of the day Joe gives each man an envelope with cash, drops them back off in town, and retires to his spartan, run-down house that’s guarded by his vicious, loyal bulldog. Unless he ventures out to a bar or over to the town brothel, Joe fails asleep on the couch watching TV as he empties a bottle or two. But life soon gets more complicated for Joe when a young lady-friend, Connie (Adriene Mishler) moves in to get away from her Mom’s frisky boyfriend. Then he becomes the target of a sleazy creep, Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) after Joe humiliates him in front of the regulars at a tavern. But the biggest complication occurs when Gary pops up in the middle of Joe’s African-American crew looking for work. Joe’s apprehensive, but gives Gary a try, and is impressed by his performance. Then Gary shows up with his father Wade whose lazy attitude antagonizes the crew. Joe dismisses them both, but when a beaten-up Gary shows up at his doorstep late that night, Joe reluctantly opens up to the lad and soon becomes the father figure that the boy desperately desires.

The role of Joe showcases the best, most nuanced performance that Nicolas Cage has given in quite some time. This sullen, hardscrabble working stiff just wants to do his job and be left alone. His time in the joint has made him cautious and a tad closed-off. Life has given him a rough ride, but he can’t avoid the curves in the road ahead. He’s capable of small acts of kindness like showing some down-and-out pals how to butcher a deer they’ve stumbled upon, but he’d prefer to just keep his head down and keep moving. We witness Joe losing his temper a few times, but Cage reins in any showy eccentricities to make him a flawed, but very real human being. This really comes to the forefront when Joe takes Gary under his wing. This film makes for a fine companion piece to Sheridan’s breakthrough role last year in MUD. As in the previous film, he’s a young man at a crossroads very much in need of male guidance. In MUD, his father was busy earning a living and trying to keep the family together, and so Sheridan’s Ellis turned to McConaughey’s title character. Here, Gary must be the provider for his family while dealing with a father who’s only invested in himself and his addictions. Sheridan is compiling quite a resume and is proving to be an involving, gifted actor, a real rising star. First-time actor Poulter is convincingly repellant as the uninvolved train-wreck of a father. Dancing drunkenly on the sidewalks wearing his “G-Daawg” jacket, he walks the line between pathetic and shocking dead-eyed evil. The film’s other great villain is Blevins as the slimy weasel who will jut not leave Joe alone. Between the principals and the colorful locals (the work crew and the town law-enforcement). Green has assembled a top-notch cast.

And Green uses the cast to propel this Southern gothic (at times even a noir) tale to its suspenseful pay-off. There’s no flashy camera work or narrative tricks. Green is content to lock the camera on the actors as they perform the compelling script by Gary Hawkins based on Larry Brown’s novel. They perfectly capture this sleepy, steamy little town full of folks worked over by harsh, unforgiving circumstances. Although the rain often comes down in buckets you feel that nobody there really ever cools off. It has the pace of small-town life which make the sudden bursts of violence even more startling. Although most of the film is downbeat, you can feel a bit of promise and hope as Gary finally connects with an encouraging adult. Sure he can be bitter and surly, but like Gary you’ll be happy that you spent a little time with JOE.

4 Out of 5

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Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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