ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Down south, Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage) is a hot-tempered man with a troubled past, now trying to right his wrongs as he runs his own logging crew. While he has his share of nasty feuds, most notably with a local rough guy named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and doesn’t seem to adhere to most drinking and driving laws, deep down he’s a loyal, hard-working man just taking it day by day.

One day, Joe comes across a local boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s asking for any work he can get from him. Joe offers him some work with his company, but over time comes to find that Gary’s personal life involves moving from place to place as basically squatters and getting smacked around by his monstrously abusive drunk father Wade (Gary Poulter). That’s when Joe decides on whether he shouldn’t get involved to avoid any more hassle with the law or risk everything to protect this boy.

It worked for McConaughey, so why not Cage?

Everyone has obviously been drawing comparisons from this film to last year’s wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt Mud (my #2 film of 2013). Honestly, though, the only comparison here is Tye Sheridan playing somewhat of the same character. The differences between the two outweigh the similarities. For one, in Mud, Sheridan’s parents, while falling on some hard times and going through a divorce, weren’t anywhere near the levels of lowlife that his dad is in Joe. Also, while Mud touched on a few dark themes, the overall theme of the film was much more uplifting than here, which is a darker, grittier film that earns its R-rating.

It’s no surprise (especially if you read Monday’s The Wicker Man review) that Nicolas Cage’s career, over the past 10-15 years, has been the equivalent of a Bigfoot sighting. Most of the time, Cage just wants his bills paid, but every now and then, if you’re really paying attention, a performance that reminds us of the talent he has always had will pop up, then disappear. Or, maybe it’s more like the groundhog. Nicolas Cage saw his paycheck, so looks like we’re in for six more weeks of Trespass.

That said, last year saw a little glimpse of hope for not just Cage, but also director David Gordon Green, who also had a bit of a slump in his stoner-comedy phase (the not bad but overrated Pineapple Express, the horrible Your Highness and The Sitter, somewhere in between). Green made a return to form with the Paul Rudd, Emile Hirsch indie comedy Prince Avalanche, while Cage had The Frozen Ground – a somewhat flawed crime thriller that was compensated by three terrific performances from Cage, John Cusack and Vanessa Hudgens. Joe once again continues that return for both men.

The story doesn’t quite grab you as much as Mud was able to do. Writer Gary Hawkins does do a terrific job in fleshing out the main characters, but I also felt the feud between Joe and Willie, while not a complete throwaway, could’ve been handled with as much emotional punch as the remaining conflicts within the story are. Still, director David Gordon Green overcomes any nitpicky writing issues by setting the dark and brooding tone of this film within seconds of the title popping up. That’s easily Green’s most underappreciated talent – he creates such natural tones within his films and combined with the locations and cinematography by Tim Orr (one of Green’s regulars) it’s quite a cinematic experience when done right. Joe does contain its moments of levity here and there that manage to fit just right amongst the darker tones and there is a redemptive aspect to the title character. However, this film is mostly bleak and there are moments of brutality and violence that are pretty jarring.

This may be a coming-of-age story for Gary, but as I said up above, Joe earns its R-rating.

Instead of going for a plot heavy narrative Green focuses more on character development and the stars portraying him. This is Nic Cage’s film to bear and he gives what is easily his best performance since Matchstick Men. In some ways, it’s a better performance in that it’s much more grounded than the norm we expect from Cage. Certainly, that cooky and quirky Cage comes out to play every once in a while, but overall he immerses himself into the dark, titular antihero and delivers a home run.

Hey, he may follow this up with Ghost Rider 3 for all I know, but I’ll take what I can get from him now.

Following his fantastic supporting turn against McConaughey, Tye Sheridan delivers another great, empathetic turn as Gary. This kid has a bright future in store for him if he plays his cards right. By that, I mean diversify it up with his next few roles. He’s great in these past two, but you don’t wanna end up as the trailer park version of Michael Cera.

Finally, I gotta mention Gary Poulter. As Gary’s hardcore alcoholic, deadbeat father, this guy, so far, has earned the top spot as the most despicably evil character in film this year. Unless someone hits it out of the park by playing either Hitler, Satan or Courtney Love by the end of 2014, he’s got that spot locked up. Poulter is downright disturbing here, and with a character like his, you can run the risk of overplaying it or hamming it up. He hits every note of his perfectly, though, and there are moments where you wonder if it’s really acting or not. Green really took a risk on Poulter ’cause I haven’t mentioned yet that prior to this film, Poulter was actually homeless with no acting experience (I’ve read some reports that say he used to do extra roles back in the ’80s). It’s unfortunate that Poulter died shortly after this film was completed. His performance is genuinely frightening and should go down as one of the most memorable supporting turns of this year.

Whether this is just another flyby great performance from Nicolas Cage or a sign that he’s back for good, it’s always refreshing to get another reminder from him that he’s the real deal. The narrative’s not as strong as the aforementioned Mud, but it’s still an unforgettable film and David Gordon Green proves he’s back for good (his next projects lined up seem to reassure that) with his sharp, character focused direction, bolstered by Tim Orr’s exquisite cinematography. The fact that he was able to draw such natural performances from a mostly unknown cast (aside from Cage and Sheridan) shows that Green is one of today’s great filmmakers. The man simply does not get enough credit.

I give Joe an A (★★★½).

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