No matter how often he turns up in B-movie schlock, Nicolas Cage will always be a one-of-a-kind talent. There’s no one else like him in the movies, with that rare combination of go-for-broke manic energy, an inclination toward offbeat humor and a knack for externalizing internal pain.
“Joe,” the new film from David Gordon Green, hands the Oscar winner his most ideal part in ages, playing an ex-con operating a tree-poisoning business who is the center of the storm in a rural Southern community teetering on the edge of madness. He’s the conductor, the increasingly unsteady presence amid an economically-depressed world defined by deepening anger and rot.
Of course, there’s plenty to see here beyond Cage’s performance. Green, continuing his return to form as a quality independent filmmaker after a sojourn into Hollywood junk (“The Sitter”), populates the film with non-actors and shoots with an eye for gritty naturalism that captures the muck and grime of the place.
The story, adapted from the 1991 Larry Brown novel, follows Cage’s Joe as he befriends and tries to save teenager Gary (Tye Sheridan), who lives in a condemned house with his deadbeat alcoholic father (Gary Poulter, cast at an Austin bus stop), mother and sister.
This is a brutal picture about people crumbling under pressure in a place left behind by the times. There’s a savagery at the heart of the movie, manifest in scenes featuring deer being skinned and harvested for meat, brutal beatings, aggressive dogs and a sense that relationships are at best a distraction and at worst a destructive force. It’s a tough film, but an honest one, and a reminder of what makes its star so great.
Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan
In theaters, on VOD and iTunes