Ex-con Joe (Cage) seems to have his life together, running a crew whose specialty involves poisoning trees in order for landowners to legally cut them down. He's respected by all in his town, all that is but the local police force, who continually harass him, thanks to an incident that saw him single-handedly beat up three of their members, and scar-faced Willie Russell (Blevins), intent on exacting revenge on Joe for a humiliating public beatdown he received at his hands. Complicating things further is the arrival of 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) and his violent alcoholic father Wade (Poulter). The former adopts Joe as a father figure, while the latter quickly makes an enemy of him.
Crazy Nic Cage is back on our screens? Yes and no. Joe, the volatile ex-con he portrays here, is indeed somewhat deranged, but quietly so, at least for two thirds of David Gordon Green's adaptation of Larry Brown's 1991 novel. This is the Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, brilliantly portraying a damaged man with a death wish, rather than the Cage we've seen so often since, miscast as a tough guy in post Don Simpson actioners like Gone in 60 Seconds, The Rock and Drive Angry, movies as high in concept as they are low of brow. There's a quiet rage brimming in his character here, and until it comes to the boil, Green's movie is a gripping watch.
The source novel dates back two decades, which makes one wonder if it served as the inspiration for Billy Bob Thornton's 1996 Slingblade and Jeff Nicholls' Mud, one of last year's outstanding movies, both of which feature a volatile man's attempts to reintegrate into society scuppered by his befriending of a troubled young boy. Of course, all three can trace their lineage to the template set down by George Stevens' 1953 Shane, a movie that still today contains one of cinema's most disturbing moments: the gunning down of an unarmed man by Jack Palance's villain, killing his victim, as Johnny Cash would say, "Just to watch him die", a scene repeated by Robert Altman two decades later in his revisionist western McCabe & Mrs Miller.
Joe might be considered a post-revisionist western. Though it begins like a nuanced character study of the type you might expect from an indie darling like Green, its final act revels in Hollywood action movie cliche. Think of last year's overlooked Stallone penned Homefront - which fooled us into believing we were getting another by the numbers Jason Statham vehicle, only to give us a deconstruction of 21st century action tropes and an examination of class prejudice in recession America - and play it in reverse.
The movie's first hour takes its time to reel us into its sweaty rural Texan world, which it does with aplomb. You can almost feel the dust in your throat, the cotton in your hair. The western stalwarts are all accounted for: the villain entering town, the hero attempting to turn his back on violence, the hooker with a heart of gold who wants her man to make a new life with her. As the former, amateur actor Poulter is fantastic, as loathsome as he is pathetic. Sadly this must serve as his legacy, as he passed away shortly after filming. An unnecessary act of violence by this character is the first sign that the movie is about to derail, and when Cage commits an atrocity that will sicken the most casual animal lovers, the film unashamedly veers onto a new and troublesome path. Ultimately this leads to a predictable outcome, and the good work done in establishing this world is largely forsaken.
Before his film turns into another bland revenge story, Green shows what a great documentarian of character he can be. He's unafraid to pause his story in order to capture a moment of magic, exemplified in a wonderful scene in which the camera watches Poulter breakdance manically to music only he can hear, like the dancing farmer of Dovzhenko's Earth.
Reviews of Cage's upcoming Rage suggest this career revival may be shortlived, but if nothing else, Joe is evidence of his untapped talent.
Review by Eric Hillis
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