Set in poverty-stricken rural Texas, Joe is a disturbing, raw drama about an ex-con trying to keep out of trouble and protect a teenage boy (Tye Sheridan). Nicolas Cage gives a powerful brooding performance in the title role, restraining his pent-up rage, until it is unleashed like his pit bull at the end. Sheridan (so impressive in MUD) also shines in the film’s darkness, but it is Gary Poulter as his violent alcoholic dad who stays in your memory.
The film starts with Wade, the ‘selfish old drunk,’ hitting his 15 year old son, Gary. He continues to do so, off and on, though the relationship is more complex than one of simple hate. Gary has fun mimicking his dad, miming cracking a whip to get him off his butt. In return, Wade shows him some break-dancing moves.
Poulter was homeless when he was cast – literally picked off the street in Austin, Texas. By all accounts he plays himself in the film, a wheezy-voiced, belligerent drifter. He died shortly after Joe was released and his presence gives the film a gritty authenticity. Looking into Poulter’s wino-blank eyes is truly unnerving.
For Joe, director David Gordon Green mixed non-professional actors with stars like Cage and he is rewarded by several scenes of what sounds like improvised dialogue, though sometimes the Southern twang is hard to decipher.
Joe is gang-master to a crew of tree-killing labourers, who are paid to clear forest for the planting of valuable pine trees. They use juice hatchets filled with poison from Ghostbuster-like backpacks. Gary persuades Joe to give him a job and proves himself a hard worker, unlike his dad, who is soon upsetting his fellow workers and skiving off.
Like Gary, Joe is a good guy with a big heart. He sees the abuse the boy is getting from his father, but at first cannot ‘get his hands dirty’ in response, or he will end up back in the Penitentiary, where he spent 29 months for shooting a cop. He helps as much as he can in practical ways – buying Gary’s family groceries, letting him have his old truck – but still seethes with frustration. In the film’s central speech he says, ‘there’s nothing I can do. And I hate it. I know what keeps me alive is restraint. Keeps me out of jail, keeps me from hurting people.’
Anyone who has seen the YouTube edited highlights of Cage ‘losing it’ will know that he is no stranger to splendidly operatic film tantrums. So ‘restrained’ makes a welcome change. There are some touching scenes between Joe and Gary when they look for Joe’s lost dog. They drink beer and josh around, Joe teaching the boy how to pull a ‘cool face’ to pull the girls: ‘you do a pain face and smile through it.’ Gary gurns like mad and the results are anything but cool.
Rays of hope, such as the scene in which Gary plants seeds in the garden of his bomb-site of a home with his sister, shine out in Joe, because much of the film is full of brutality and squalour. The mess and broken-down-ness of lives lived on the breadline are reflected by the landscape: poisoned trees, railway sidings, whorehouses, clutter and rubbish. Gary’s porch is a work of art in its devastation. The set designers must have had fun creating it.
Joe is not an easy watch. There are moments of shocking violence and grim realism. But when Cage does finally lose it, to the accompaniment of pounding industrial noise like a headache (‘Goddammit!’), you know you’re in safe hands.