There are, as you may be aware, two Nicolas Cages. One of them is a respected actor who won an Academy Award. The other, it can be assumed, wants nothing more than to direct and star in a film where Bigfoot and She-Hulk battle a Cambodian drug cartel run by a Satanic coven. Some people consider that a case of divided loyalties at best, career sabotage at worst; I think it’s just the man’s way of keeping his life interesting. In any case, when Cage’s two selves collide you wind up with performances like his unjustly overlooked brilliance in Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans, or, if he takes it down a few hundred notches, in something like Joe.
As Joe, Cage is an ex-con living as unassuming a life as he can. He keeps his head down and his problematic anger issues in check through hard work as the foreman for a lumber company’s tree-poisoning crew. He visits the rundown local brothel to spend time with his ladyfriends. He shops at the messy, haphazardly stocked mini-mart. A couple of no-good townies don’t like him but he keeps them at bay. And he has a bit of a cop problem, yet the local law enforcement officials do their best to accommodate that.
Into Joe’s life stumbles young Gary (Mud’s Tye Sheridan), a 15 year-old living in a condemned shack with his mother, mute sister and brutally abusive alcoholic father (Gary Poulter). The boy pushes Joe to take him on the tree crew so he can buy food for his family. Joe, in turn, becomes surrogate father to Gary, and this sets in motion a knot of unusually conventional plot trajectories for a David Gordon Green film.
Like Cage, Green has two sides. On the one is Pineapple Express and weird dogs like Your Highness. On the other is his critically acclaimed debut George Washington, the odd, leisurely romance All The Real Girls, and last year’s Prince Avalanche, which starred Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as Texas highway line painters going nowhere in particular. Those low budget stakeouts of rural life have a tendency to meander and quietly observe the “Rough South,” adapted here from a novel by Larry Brown. The atmosphere is its own character and it would feel exploitative if his attendant details weren’t so accurate. Green is clearly comfortable in this environment and he doesn’t seem to much care if audiences find it off-putting or if the stories he directs resolve themselves cleanly.
In Joe, though, supporting characters who push the outcome to exactly that sort of clean resolution are clearly underlined for easy spotting, as are the narrative signposts and metaphorical imagery. It makes for a pushier experience than most Green films usually opt to give and the result is his most conventional indie to date.
But in the end it’s Cage’s and Sheridan’s movie. They play off each other perfectly, their father/son dynamic opening up a new tenderness in Cage and a future of career possibilities for Sheridan. His lonely Southern lost boy is a character so fully lived in that it feels like he’s not acting at all. He has a lot in common with his adult co-star during that actor's own younger years, and that's a very good thing, provided the end game isn't 2034's Bangkok Dangerous 2.