They may be all too rare these days, but there are still occasions when Nicolas Cage can surprise us, flashing hints of his old acting-without-a-net self (Adaptation, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans). More often, though, he seems content to showboat through inane paycheck flicks (Ghost Rider, Drive Angry, the list goes on…and on). That’s why it’s so heartening to see him as the haggard, hair-trigger-tempered antihero of David Gordon Green’s doom-drenched new Southern gothic drama, Joe.
Green, who launched his career with downbeat, often lyrical portraits of frayed-at-the-edges Americana in such indies as George Washington and Undertow, has a gift for making blue-collar characters come alive with authenticity and hard-won dignity. Cage’s Joe is one such man. He’s a chain-smoking ex-con supervising a crew of day laborers tasked with poisoning trees to clear the land for fresh saplings. His newest worker is Gary (Tye Sheridan), an abused teen who’s trapped in a desperate situation at home with a drunk and violent dad (Gary Poulter). Joe becomes a father figure to Gary, teaching him the value of hard work, staying out of trouble, and seducing women (apparently the sound of a Zippo lighter is an aphrodisiac). Joe isn’t very good at following his own advice — at least the staying-out-of-trouble part — but Gary presents a last-ditch shot at redemption, the chance to nurture a flesh-and-blood sapling of his own.
Both Cage and Sheridan (who shined opposite Matthew McConaughey in Mud) give true and at times tender performances. It’s a shame the film lacks the same subtlety and force. Joe is about starting over before it’s too late. And for Cage, who internalizes that theme like a career directive, it’s a sure-footed step in the right direction. B