These days, the performances of Nicolas Cage can usually be divided into one of two categories. The actor is either outright bad, in that lazy Con Air kind of way, mumbling through his lines and defaulting to sullen action-star mode. Or—and this is much more fun, obviously—he’s good bad, offering the kind of bellowing, cartoon-junkie intensity that seems readymade for YouTube encapsulation. (The Wicker Man remake may be awful, but because of its star and his lunatic line readings, it’s rarely boring.) Every once in a while, though, Cage does the unthinkable and offers a performance that requires neither apologies nor camp appreciation. For two hours or so, he becomes a magnetic actor again, the same vibrant presence who wowed audiences with his work in Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. He is, in these rare instances, just plain good.
That Cage, the serious and committed one, shows up for work again in Joe, a ramshackle Southern drama about poverty, dead-end lives, and the day-to-day difficulty of keeping your hands clean in a dirty world. Seriously bulked up, with a scraggly gray beard and tattoos that snake down his oaky forearms, Cage plays the title character, a hard-drinking ex-convict in rural Mississippi. The leader of a questionably legal work force, a group of men who poison healthy trees so the lumber company can come through and knock them down, Joe is a man who’s made an uneasy peace with his short temper. It probably goes without saying that this reformed rage-aholic will slip—if only momentarily—over the edge, his repressed anger coming to a renewed boil. But what’s commendable about Cage’s performance, given his usual tendency to go as far over the top as possible, is the way the actor downplays even the occasional surge of violent emotion. This is a movie about restraint, which is exactly what its star demonstrates throughout.
Given his numerous bad habits, which range from drinking while driving to fist-fighting the law, Joe doesn’t much resemble conventional role-model material. But that’s exactly what he becomes to Gary (Tye Sheridan), the industrious 15-year-old he takes under his wing. Gary has a mother and a mute sister to support, and a cruel, pathetic drunk of a father (an incredible Gary Poulter) who blows all their money on hooch. Will Cage’s anguished anti-hero poison his young charge with hatred, just as he poisons the woodland? Or will his paternal affection for the boy spurn a true transformation? Such questions align Joe with the superficially similar Mud, which also starred Sheridan as a troubled teenage boy who falls under the sway of an outlaw mentor figure with a three-letter name. The parallels don't end there: Like the earlier movie, Joe is most compelling when simply sketching in the details of its impoverished milieu; both movies fare better as environmental portraits than crime drama. The minute Peter Sarsgaard look-alike Ronnie Gene Blevins shows up, as a facially scarred degenerate starting trouble with both Joe and his surrogate son, it’s very obvious where the film is headed.But Joe is a tougher, darker work than Mud—less a boyhood adventure yarn than the tale of a young man forced into premature adulthood by the failures of his elders and the corruptive influence of his surroundings. One might accuse this backwoods quasi-noir of exoticizing rural desperation were it not for director David Gordon Green and his plain affection for the land and the people occupying it. Green shot Joe on some of the same stretches of Texas wilderness where he filmed last year’s Prince Avalanche; this grim drama is a companion piece to that comeback comedy—a mostly DIY effort from an artist who’s now earned the reputation and industry clout to get someone like Nicolas Cage to trek into the great outdoors with him. The movie is never more alive than when shifting to Joe’s bantering forest work crew, portrayed by an ensemble of fantastic nonprofessional actors. (Nearly all of the supporting characters, in fact, are played by unknowns.) Joe could have used a more unpredictable narrative, one less programmatic in its pursuit of a cathartic, genre-movie resolution. But there’s a wealth of life at both its center and its margins, provided by a director and star rediscovering their potential for greatness.