It’s a dog-eat-dog world, as two ferociously snapping canines make literally clear in one of many darkly humorous asides in “Joe,” David Gordon Green’s bleak and brutal examination of Southern small-town masculinity and its discontents. Having shown signs of returning to his indie roots with this year’s well-received “Prince Avalanche,” the director extends his flight from the commercial mainstream with a patiently observed, often unsettlingly violent drama that can’t help but feel overly familiar in some of its particulars, rich in rural texture but low on narrative momentum or surprise. Nicolas Cage’s excellent, tightly wound performance represents the film’s most lucrative angle, but it won’t be enough to lure average Joes to the arthouse.
Adapted by screenwriter Gary Hawkins from a 1991 novel by the late author Larry Brown, “Joe” superficially recalls Green’s Southern-gothic thriller “Undertow,” although it also bears some resemblance to his little-seen 2007 drama “Snow Angels” with its multi-character focus, incongruous comic touches and climactic eruption of violence. As usual with the director’s artier excursions, there’s a deliberate unevenness at work here, an off-center quality to the storytelling that intrigues as well as frustrates, as the film often willingly suspends traditional narrative satisfactions for the sake of color and atmosphere.
Still, the various digressions over the course of the drama’s slow-building two hours all seem to suggest answers to one central question: What kind of man is Joe Ransom (Cage)? On the one hand, he gambles and drinks too much, hangs out at brothels, keeps a vicious bulldog, and has an alarming capacity for violence rooted in a vague criminal past. But on the other, he’s humorous, good-spirited and something of a mildly crooked pillar of his community (unspecified, though the film was shot in Texas), someone who trusts others and inspires trust in return, not least from the hard-working crew of “tree poisoners” he runs on behalf of a local lumber company.
The newest and unlikeliest addition to this team is a young teenager named Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) with a polite, persistent attitude and an excellent work ethic. That’s more than can be said for Gary’s dad, Wade (an outstanding Gary Poulter), a vituperative old drunk who, rather than look for work, would prefer to smack his son around and steal his hard-earned cash. Watching from the sidelines as Gary tries to defend himself, his younger sister and his helpless mother against this monstrous excuse for a husband and father, Joe feels his protective instincts awakened, though he knows that getting involved will cost him and possibly others. Meanwhile, another threat looms in the form of a ne’er-do-well (Ronnie Gene Blevins) itching for revenge after being humiliated by Joe in a recent brawl.
In presenting Joe and the audience with such unambiguous archetypes of good and evil, and encouraging the notion that sometimes blood must be shed in order to shield the innocent, the film strives for a mythic resonance grounded in its primal, close-to-nature setting. The atmosphere quivers with spiritual undertones of grace and menace: The camera at times hovers alongside the characters as though wielded by some invisible presence (actually Green’s regular d.p., Tim Orr), while David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain’s moody score puts the viewer in a metaphysical state of mind from the opening scenes. And when Joe takes a venomous snake in hand (a stunt Cage apparently performed sans protection or fear), there’s even a biblical parallel or two for the taking.
As refreshing as it is to see Green returning to serious, character-driven material after the likes of “Your Highness” and “The Sitter,” there’s ultimately something more willed than organic about the story “Joe” tells and the indirect, morally inquisitive manner in which it tells it. What keeps the viewer watching are the sudden spasms of violence and the flashes of cynical humor, all qualities to be expected from this sort of white-trash gothic, but even the visceral charge of these individual scenes can’t ward off a wearying inevitability that sets in around the halfway point. Predictably enough, women are essentially nonentities in this world of blood and testosterone, with Adriene Mishler doing what she can to breathe life into the role of Joe’s part-time g.f.
As usual with Green’s work in this vein, the rural details feel wholly authentic, the off-topic interludes often weirdly fascinating, as when Gary gets a crash course in the art of tree poisoning, or when Joe demonstrates the proper way to skin and slice a dangling deer carcass. (Rarely has a “no animals were harmed” notice come as more of a relief.) Green takes particular delight in indulging the banter of Joe’s all-black lumber crew, played by real day laborers.
Another non-professional actor in the cast is Poulter, who died in March and thus didn’t live to see his first and last screen performance. On the evidence here, the actor was a natural, playing an irredeemable scoundrel whose no-holds-barred nastiness has a way of polluting everyone and everything around him.
Sporting a grizzled beard, a slight paunch and several tattoos, Cage bristles with unpredictable energy yet still allows Joe’s fundamental decency to shine through in an aces performance. Sheridan, who after “The Tree of Life,” “Mud” and now “Joe” would seem to have the market cornered on sensitive Southern tykes, comes off a bit bland, but he has a winning rapport with his older co-star, particularly in a funny, moving extended bonding montage that, as set to a rare upbeat soundtrack selection, almost seems to belong in a different film.