Review: Joe

 Joe (2013), Dir. David Gordon Green
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter

Joe takes place in some unnamed, blue-collar backwater of Texas, with a real integrity for the textures of its setting. Guns and mounted deer antlers decorate home interiors, seemingly unchanged since the seventies. The countryside is dotted with all manner of clapped-out mobile homes, precarious shacks, and tiny one-bedroom houses. Yards are sprawled with what remains of broken-down lawn equipment, cars, and ephemera. Rope swings droop sideways from heavy oak trees, forgotten. Front porches sag under peeling white paint, as if the artifice of cleanliness is too much for them to bear.

 It's all a little bit familiar to us now - at least those of us who've been watching this particular brand of American crime film for the past few years.  Set in the sun-dappled Deep South, they tend toward either bittersweet coming-of-age or bizarre, extreme violence. Sometimes, both.

Into this environment drifts a fifteen-year-old boy, Gary, played by Tye Sheridan. He has a glint of steely resourcefulness behind his milky demeanour; he lives in shocking squalor, and is essentially self-reliant. His father (the late Gary Poulter) is a stumbling, shuffling drunk, the kind that eats from yesterday's trash, and sporadically bursts into fits of violence. Played by a real homeless man who only recently passed away, his performance is chilling and unforgettable.

Desperate to earn some money, Gary is hired to do tough, dangerous work clearing trees from patches of forest. Equipped with a primitive rucksack to emit blinding poison, along with axes and machetes, the group of men forge through their work. The man who hires Gary - and, notably, the only other white man to be seen doing this type of work - is Joe, played by a grizzled Nicolas Cage.

Joe is a mysterious figure; he politely visits brothels, engages in violent feuds, picks bullets out of his shoulder with a pocket knife, and cruises around drunkenly in his truck, bracing himself for a confrontation with local cops. Here, Cage's often rambunctious onscreen energy is toned down. Joe is coiled and erratic; always on the brink, but rarely over the edge. When he finally does explode, his young employee is the catalyst.

An ongoing feud with a strange local psychopath, complete with scars on his face and a penchant for young girls, ups the ante considerably. More pointedly, Gary's family situation begins to deteriorate under the strain of the new money he earns; his father grows increasingly abusive. Gary frequently turns up at Joe's front door like a stray, and the two soon form something of a father-son relationship. In one funny, charming scene, the two go on a drunken search for Joe's lost dog, with Gary behind the wheel and Joe lecturing him on the art of picking up women.

Unfortunately, the third act begins to lose traction. Psychopaths collide and start scheming together; their villainy becomes cartoonish. Any previous element of social realism is eschewed for lightweight generic plot devices.  The film shies from its earlier organic promise, its realistic looseness, and descends into a shootout. Nonetheless, it's hard to be tough on it. David Gordon Green is essentially a good storyteller, with an honesty and integrity for his characters and their milieu.

In many ways, we know the score by now. It's God, guns, and America out there, and the heartland is in decay, marred by chronic poverty and violence. Joe could be considered Southern Gothic, but this is Southern Gothic with all the jagged edges rubbed off.  It is softened into a generic, blue-collar crime film that lacks the bite and the social commentary of its literary forbearers.


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