Generally, “Nicolas Cage is back” is not an announcement to make movie lovers’ hearts race. But in “Joe,” the first-rate Cage of “Adaptation,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Raising Arizona” and “Face-Off” is back, the actor who gives demanding work his full measure of talent and dedication.
His shrewd, absorbing performance gives the dark rural drama “Joe” a jolt of undeniable power.
The setting is a dirt-poor patch of Texas. Joe (Cage) is a solitary sort. He’s the boss of a tree-clearing crew whose ecologically damaging methods are just this side of legal. Fundamentally decent but explosively hot-tempered, Joe struggles to stay on the right side of the law himself. He works hard alongside his mostly black employees, laughs at their jokes, pays them fairly. Apart from occasional visits to the local bordello, he keeps his own company. If he goes out to a bar, things get chaotic.
Gangly teen Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan, one of Brad Pitt’s children in “The Tree of Life”) shows up one day looking for a job. Since his father, Wade, is a mad-dog drunkard, he’s also in need of an adult role model.
Joe, who has troublesome, violent people on his case, is reluctant to be the boy’s surrogate. But when he learns how dire Gary’s situation is — Wade beats the boy and has probably done worse to his mute daughter — Joe has little choice but to step up. But ferrying the boy to safety is no simple task.
The characters are rich and round with human contradictions. Joe, despite his police rap sheet and outlaw temperament, has a core of tenderness and humor.
The film uncoils and relaxes when he teaches the boy how to drive a truck and make the kind of tough-guy grimace that’s interesting to women.
The late Gary Poulter, who plays Wade, was an alcoholic street performer whom director David Gordon Green recruited off the streets of Austin. He has a feral authenticity and power on-screen.
The material could be a deluge of misery. In the hands of Green, it is dark, wild and exhilarating, less a rural crime story than a coming-of-age fable. The tone is grounded in grit yet lyrical. Green finds a kind of bitter poetry in backwoods decay. Using mostly nonprofessional actors and junkyard set design, he makes this Southern Gothic feel less bleak than it is.
There is abundant hardship here, but it’s faced by people with a defiant, libertarian strength. Nobody in this film wants your pity. Like all the best stories about children — and about adults redeeming themselves — it argues that even in dire circumstances, hope finds a way.