How do you capture onscreen a voice like the late southern writer Larry Brown’s? You can hear his drawl in his shapely, run-on sentences, full of laconic charm but with a nasty edge—and nonstop harbingers of violence. David Gordon Green makes a fine stab in Joe, based on Brown’s 1991 novel. The movie doesn’t have Brown’s seductive rhythm, but it captures his draggy malevolence, his vision of life as a series of abrasions that spark into rage—though also, in at least one case, empathy.
The case is Joe (Nicolas Cage), a heavy drinker with a tendency to pop off in the face of injustice, real or perceived. Following a prison stint, he manages a crew of mostly African-Americans whose job is poisoning trees so that a lumber company can legally clear the land (the trees have to be dead first) and plant more-profitable pines. He’s trying to keep himself on a leash—just like the voluble mutt chained in his yard. But his righteous instincts are stirred by a teenager named Gary (Tye Sheridan, of Mud), who roams the South with a homeless clan led by a semi-demented alcoholic, Wade (Gary Poulter). Think of the scariest patriarch this side of Charles Manson: That’s Wade. And there’s another brutal drunk who looms large in the narrative: a scarred sociopath named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins) with a spate of grudges and a ready gun. There’s so much alcohol-fueled viciousness that you can only imagine what might have been if the novel had been written a few years later, with the meth epidemic in full bloom. There’d be no one left alive.
The movie is sick with a sense of evil—the toxic drinking, the poisoned trees, the dogs that don’t stop snarling. The skies are dark, the light inside ramshackle houses soupy and yellowish. But all hope has not been snuffed out. Tim Orr’s handheld camera trails young Gary as he sets out to persuade Joe to give him work—a life-or-death plea given his dire circumstances. Green is careful to tip the balance in favor of decency. It’s in the camaraderie of the men on Joe’s crew, the gentle remonstrations of the local police sheriff (Aj Wilson McPhaul), and, above all, in Joe’s protective feelings toward the boy who tries to raise himself in the face of killing odds. It’s just that evil keeps intruding—and it won’t let you turn the other cheek.
Much has been made of Cage’s return to indie cinema after a decade of weird acting in big-budget schlock. If you can overcome your prejudices, you’ll be surprised by how affecting he can be when he stops being a “role stylist” and gets the scale of his performance right. His Joe is sunk into himself, sodden with cocktails of whiskey and Coke, but with the kind of ineffable big-star cool that makes his response to getting a bullet in his shoulder—he lights a cigarette and puffs thoughtfully—delightfully credible. When Cage doesn’t grandstand, you can see what made him so likable once: his boyish earnestness, his touching lack of cynicism.
His onscreen counterweight isn’t the raving nutbird Willie but Wade, the far-gone alcoholic father. Gary Poulter was homeless when Green put him in Joe and died on the streets of Austin a few months after shooting. Mixing real (and troubled) people with actors is a risk, artistically and morally. (Was Poulter being helped or exploited?) But his ravaged blankness is frightening in ways that few actors could touch: The addiction has supplanted the face. You believe him capable of anything.
My chief reservation about Joe (the novel and the film) is that it builds to the usual vigilante justice. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, and violence brings order instead of further destabilizing the universe. You can be of two minds about the movie’s climax without shame. It’s galvanizing and, after all the accumulated tension, longed-for. And it’s too easy. And it’s rousingly well done. And it’s cheap. And that’s what makes the vigilante myth so vexing.
*This article appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.