The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Joe is one of the movie’s locations.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is the stoic foreman of a ragged crew working a patch of forest in rural Texas. The landowners want to clear the trees but can’t unless the trees are shown to be sick. So Joe and his men have been hired to spend their days plunging “juice hatchets” into the trunks, injecting poison to ensure death and eventual deforestation.
Despite the work, this woodsy locale is the most idyllic setting in the film. Sunlight streams through the leaves (it even streams through the rain) and the men, largely played by a gregarious group of non-professional actors, throw themselves into their efforts. They may have been hired for duplicitous reasons, but their sweat is true. Indeed, even though heavy labor takes place in this spot, the forest feels like a respite from the rest of their lives. Certainly it is for Joe, whose life otherwise consists of prickly run-ins with the law, edgy visits to a brothel and fitful nights on a couch, nodding off with a whiskey-and-Coke on his belly. Working in the woods also comes to be a respite for Gary (Tye Sheridan), the 15-year-old son of an itinerant family lorded over by an abusive, alcoholic father (Gary Poulter).
Based on a book by Larry Brown and directed by David Gordon Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow), Joe is, as you might have surmised, a surrogate-dad story, with Cage’s unlikely father figure sloughing off the hopelessness that had begun to settle in for the sake of a seemingly cursed kid. The movie is a bit stodgy in structure and far more literal than most of Green’s dramas, particularly his previous picture, Prince Avalanche. Yet it has a real feel, at once dreamy and doomed, that’s hard to shake – not to mention the sort of genuine Cage performance that’s become all too rare.
They may have been hired for duplicitous reasons, but their sweat is true.
Admittedly, Cage doesn’t quite blend in during his scenes with the first-time actors; even when offering this muted version of his screen persona, he still stands out. But he’s excellent when anchored to firmer ground, and especially in his scenes with Sheridan. The young actor may be more aware of himself than he was in The Tree of Life and Mud – a thin layer has gone up between him and the audience – but Cage brings out his instinctive talent in their scenes together. During one lovely interlude, in which Gary and Joe bum around looking for Joe’s runaway dog, we get the sort of loose, ramshackle ease that’s a shared trait of both actors and their director. There’s even a great Cagey moment when Joe shows Gary how to make a “cool face.”
Even so, the best performance in the film by far is given by Poulter as Wade, Gary’s malicious dad. Poulter, who died shortly after filming, was a novice performer as well, cast partly because his face was weathered in a way no actor could match. Yet what he brings to the role is ultimately less physical than spiritual – he’s a haunting specter who wanders the streets and railroad tracks seemingly in a fog, at least until his cravings suddenly given him a moment of foul clarity. Wade’s encounter with another homeless man, in which he spins a yarn while planning a murder, unfolds with an awful dread.
It’s telling that Wade feels out of place when Gary brings him along to work with Joe’s crew in the forest. He wanders about, stealing gulps of water from other men’s jugs and sitting apart, by himself, while the rest of them trade teasing barbs over their lunch break. Joe is an elemental story about the inner battle between good and evil – and how standing in the sunlight can reveal our propensity for one or the other.