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VENICE, Italy – Following Prince Avalanche, David Gordon Green remains in Texas and on the same return track to his small-scale indie roots with the grubby Southern realist drama Joe. Powered by raw yet expertly measured performances from Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan as an ex-con fumbling for atonement and a luckless boy reaching out for a father figure, respectively, the film captures both the grit and the compassion for its characters’ pain that are hallmarks of the writing of novelist Larry Brown. But while its simmering violence and dread are sustained with impressive slow-burn conviction, the film will be too punishingly grim for many audiences.
Thematically similar to Jeff Nichols’ Mud, which also showcased intense work from teenage actor Sheridan, Green’s film is several shades darker and bleaker, albeit with a redemptive coda. Of the director’s previous work, it most recalls Undertow and Snow Angels.
Screenwriter Gary Hawkins shifts the story from late firefighter-turned-novelist Brown’s native Mississippi to a Texas setting that could be any dirt-poor, depressed small town in the American South. Drawn with no-frills authenticity, this is a place defined by guns, aggression, booze and poverty, its people either folksy types, content with what little they have, or hardened by bitter experience and by futures with no hope of relief. Violence rarely seems more than a heartbeat away.
Approaching 50 and struggling every day to keep a lid on the rage within him, Joe Ransom (Cage) runs an operation poisoning trees in the forest for a lumber company planning to replant the area with hardier pines. Despite the specter of a troubled past that hangs heavily over him, Joe is a good man, as evidenced by his camaraderie with the all-black crew of day laborers.
Fifteen-year-old Gary Jones (Sheridan) is the son of Wade (Gary Poulter), an abusive alcoholic with an aversion to work of any kind. Uneducated but smart, Gary does what he can to take care of his addled mother and mute sister. Having spent their lives drifting from town to town, the family takes up residence in a condemned house. When Gary wanders along in the woods looking for a job, Joe gives the boy a shot.
Wade proves a liability when his son gets him a spot on Joe’s crew, but he’s not shy about taking the hard-working kid’s earnings. This is a man whose moral bankruptcy knows no limits; he’s the human equivalent of the cottonmouth snake that Joe picks up and then releases back into the wild. But the vileness with which Wade is portrayed feels somewhat overstated in a film that generally tries to temper its Southern Gothic qualities into a more naturalistic vein. This is more a shortcoming of the screenplay than of Poulter, a non-pro from Austin who died after shooting was completed.
Gary’s increasing refusal to submit to his father’s will and live by his rules fuels the principal conflict. But both Gary and Joe have gotten on the wrong side of Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a scar-faced blowhard carrying a heavy grudge. When Willie makes an ally of Wade, the story is pushed toward an ugly climax.
Screenwriter Hawkins made the documentary The Rough South of Larry Brown, and the deep respect he and Green share for the source material is clear. That said, the film doesn’t entirely escape its literary roots, with loss of detail occasionally making one question the credibility of the characters’ choices.
Where it really works is in Cage’s bone-deep characterization of a man at war with himself, as tightly leashed as the badass bulldog that guards his house. When he’s not brooding, Joe is easygoing and friendly with most of the townsfolk in his circle, including the general store owner, the whorehouse ladies and the sheriff, despite the short fuse that keeps landing him in trouble.
As a protagonist, the sullen loner scarred by life and prey to his own violent instincts seems a well-worn figure. But there’s a soulfulness and integrity to Cage’s Joe that keep him real as he takes Gary under his wing and shows him genuine kindness.
The story’s most winning element is that while Joe has difficulty breaking down the walls that prevent him from showing much tenderness to his loving girlfriend Connie (Adriene Mishler), he lets Gary in almost despite himself. Their growing rapport is deftly developed in the script and played with sensitivity, humor and warmth by both actors. One scene in which Joe demonstrates how to make an impression on women by smiling through pain feels perhaps like Cage having a joke at the expense of some of his more unhinged screen performances.
Having gone from The Tree of Life to Mud to Joe, Sheridan has established the foundations of a promising talent, schooled first by Terrence Malick and then by two younger directors whose work bears the veteran’s influence. Sheridan again makes a solid impression here, even if he doesn’t quite seem rough enough around the edges to be a hard-luck kid who never spent a day in school.
The remaining cast mixes a handful of professional actors and untrained locals with decent results, though the mumbled, heavily accented dialogue is often hard to catch.
Green’s regular cinematographer, Tim Orr, as always, does impeccable work, elegantly juxtaposing images of natural beauty with harshness and squalor in a visual field of rich, dark tones. Pace-wise, the sinewy drama seems a touch too long and occasionally tends to idle where genre conventions dictate a steadier build, but David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain‘s score maintains a suitably ominous mood.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (in competition; also in Toronto Film Festival)
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Sue Rock, Adriene Mishler
Production companies: Worldview Entertainment, Dreambridge Films, Muskat Filmed Productions, Rough House
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: Gary Hawkins, based on the novel by Larry Brown
Producers: Lisa Muskat, David Gordon Green, Christopher Woodrow, Derrick Tseng
Executive producers: Molly Connors, Maria Cestone, Sarah Johnson Redlich, Hoyt David Morgan, Brad Coolidge, Melissa Coolidge, Todd J. Labarowski, Jody Hill, Danny McBride
Director of photography: Tim Orr
Production designer: Chris Spellman
Music: David Wingo, Jeff McIlwain
Editor: Colin Patton
Costume designers: Jill Newell, Karen Malecki
Sales: WestEnd Films/CAA
No rating, 117 minutes
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