David Gordon Green has one of the strangest careers in Hollywood.
He made his name directing keenly observed art house films about life in the rural South like “George Washington’ and “Undertow.” They are rich with details, if sketchy story wise.
He’s probably better known, however, as the filmmaker behind the ribald comedies “Eastbound & Down” and “Your Highness.”
His career is a study of contrasts, of high art and low culture. His latest, “Joe,” rests somewhere in the middle. Like his early work it’s a Southern Gothic, set in a rugged small town where rusted pick-ups are a prized possession and there’s only work when the sun is shining. The outrageous humor of his comedies is absent, but what “Joe” lacks in laughs, it makes up for in story.
Nicolas Cage is Joe Ransom, foreman of a work crew who poison healthy trees so a forestry company can come in, raze the area and raise more valuable saplings. He’s also an ex-con, constantly struggling with a volatile temper.
When he meets and hires fifteen-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) he finds a kindred soul, a damaged kid with a drunken violent father (Gary Poulter). Gary is a hard worker—the main breadwinner for his drifter parents—and looks to Joe as a role model.
Emotionally involved, Joe puts himself in the middle of a father-and-son conflict.
Like Green, Cage’s career is marked with high highs and low lows. “Joe” sees him hand in his best performance since “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans.” He’s not exactly understated here, but he is textured and nuanced, giving Joe some real depth. The histrionics that earned him the nickname “Ragin' Nic Cage” are mostly absent, replaced by an actor who convincingly portrays a raw nerve of a man who fights against his impulses on a daily basis.
He is supported by Sheridan, who delivers on the promise he displayed in the Matthew McConaughey film “Mud.” He’s a terrific actor and doesn’t allow Cage to overpower him.
The film’s tour-de-force performance comes from the late Gary Poulter in his film debut as Gary’s violent degenerate sot of a father. Green plucked him from the streets of Austin, Texas, where decades of addiction had ravaged his body. He passed away two months after filming was completed, drowned, after a night of heavy drinking. In the movie the 53 year-old is menacing, dangerous and disturbing in a role that requires him to pimp out his own daughter and physically abuse his son. It’s the work of a pro and it’s a shame we won’t see more of his work.
“Joe” may be mainly a character study of the three men, but it doesn’t skimp on the story. It’s bleak, with little relief from scene to scene, but is a happy medium for Green, melding his indie work with his Hollywood films in an interesting and satisfying way.