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USA 2013
Directed by
David Gordon Green
117 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars


One of the most ghoulishly fascinating settings of American film is the dirt poor rural South – a region which seemingly even today is home to near bestial survival in conditions of inbred ignorance, physical and mental abuse and fundamentalist bigotry. David Gordon Green‘s film places us squarely in that territory in a suitably bleak story of loss and redemption.

Nicolas Cage plays Joe, a loner who runs a gang of day labourers who poison trees in order that they can be cut down to be replaced with plantation pines. A chain-smoker and a heavy drinker who lives alone with his bulldog he also has serious anger issues and has done a stretch in jail for beating up a police officer. One day, a 15 year old boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), shows up and Joe gives him a job, gradually getting to know the boy and learning that he is squatting in an abandoned house with his mother, sister and abusive, alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). As the situation for Gary worsens, Joe’s carefully constructed defences are challenged as he sees that he must do something to save the boy from the cycle of abuse that threatens to destroy his future.

Green’s previous film was the engagingly offbeat comedy-drama Prince Avalanche that also dealt with the development of a friendship between two males. Joe, based on a novel by Larry Brown, is far darker material but Green is completely in control of it, with the help of his regular cinematographer, Tim Orr, and composers (David Wingo and Jeff Mcllwraith, also Green regulars) creating a setting and atmosphere which in its remoteness could be, were it not for the cars, the 1930s as easily as today.

Cage, bulked up despite Joe's diet of cigarettes and booze, gives easily one of the best performances of his career. Given the flakiness of the latter this could be a back-handed compliment but by any standards Cage is outstanding here - manifesting an intensely physical machismo yet with a palpable humanity (there is amusing, almost deconstructive, scene in which Joe teaches Gary how to develop the correct manly facial demeanour of smiling through pain). Newcomer Tye Sheridan gives a strong performance as the young man whom Joe befriends whilst Ronnie Gene Blevins is effective as a cowardly creep. Gary Poulter, who is truly repellant as Gary's father, was a homeless man who had never acted before and who died shortly after the completion of this film.

Joe is a dark and, in places, disturbing, film but if you like strong character studies and even stronger performances it is well worth catchingMy only quibble is that even in the Deep South surely a 15 year old wouldn't be driving a pick-up truck.




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