A very strong central performance from Nicolas Cage anchors Joe, a slow burning drama from director David Gordon Lee, adapting Larry Brown’s novel.
Cage is riveting as the eponymous Joe, an ex-con who becomes an unlikely role model and father figure to fifteen year old Gary (Tye Sheridan). Desperate to support his drifter family and protect them from his violent, immoral, alcoholic father, Gary takes a job working on the deforestation and replanting project Joe oversees. The replacing of dead, useless trees with new saplings provides an interesting metaphorical background as Joe lurches between ruin and redemption; alternating cigarette and alcohol abuse, using prostitutes and antagonising/assaulting police officers with helping Gary gain a new sense of self-worth amid his path to manhood.
The pace is slow – possibly too slow for some tastes – but gripping, with a vivid, beautiful yet grimy, dirt-under-the-fingernails atmosphere courtesy of cinematographer Tim Orr (recalling the look and feel of last summer’s Mudd). Lee handles the sudden and bursts of violence very well, and whilst said moments can be shocking, I wouldn’t say they were gratuitous in any way. At this point I may as well add the usual warning for swearing and sex, as well as violence, but again, everything seemed appropriate within the context of the film.
The story is familiar but the characters do some interesting and unusual things, playing a little with the conventions of the Southern noir genre, but not too much. The central moral conceit of reluctant redemption is well worn, but Cage’s understated and completely convincing performance makes this well worth a watch.