Review: Nicolas Cage finds no Southern comfort in grim, grimy ‘Joe’

VENICE – Tye Sheridan seems a nice kid and all, but he sure has terrible taste in father figures. Well, okay, not the real Tye Sheridan – whose dad, I”m sure, is a delight – but the flinty, feral persona he”s honed in two country-fried journeys into manhood this year. First came Jeff Nichols” “Mud,” in which the steady-gazing teenager attached himself to Matthew McConaughey”s snake-tattooed fugitive Mud, a reverse adoption that ended about as well as it might have done. Now comes David Gordon Green”s “Joe,” in which Sheridan, his face already older and more settled, attaches himself to Nicolas Cage”s skull-tattooed ex-con Joe – a slightly more mutual adoption that, given the boy”s brutal, whiskey-wet home environment, could only be described as the lesser of two evils.

As with the goofy-melancholy antics of “Prince Avalanche,” hailed earlier this year as Green”s redemptive feature after the progressive artistic backslide of his mainstream comedy phase, “Joe” sees the North Carolina graduate returning more to a physical environment than a cinematic one. Grimy and shouty and riddled with broad, substance-scarred stereotypes, this hellish vision of the South – that no state is specified on screen enhances the sense of all unflattering bases being covered, though Larry Brown”s source novel is set in Mississippi – is a realm far, far away from the woozy, Sparklehorse-kissed romanticism of “All the Real Girls,” or even the honest gruel of “Undertow,” however regionally approximate. In career terms, Green is returning from the wilderness by returning to it – but in the time he”s been away, he appears to have developed an outsider”s wary perspective.

Coincidentally or otherwise, the film”s very first shot lures resilient 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) with both the motive and means for escape, as he sits beside his grizzled, alcoholic dad Wade before a railway track that one suspects has ample time for moss to gather between trains. Father and son trade abuse from the off, and not in the jocular, status-asserting way that is common in even the Bradiest of bunches. It”s plain theirs is a violent, loveless bond, and if the performance by first-time actor Gary Poulter as Wade is short on emotional gradation, its unschooled volatility does make him an appropriately stressful presence. (In countenance and clothing, meanwhile, he also looks distractingly like Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne”s upcoming “Nebraska,” but that”s a separate concern.)

A male counterpart of sorts to Jennifer Lawrence”s Ree Dolly in “Winter”s Bone” – if you look closely, Lawrence and Sheridan even have a similar, wide-cheeked mien – Gary is entrusted with caring and providing for his mother and sister over a father whose drowning in an Ozark lake would be, if anything, a benefit to all parties. His sister is mute, and his mother may as well be: I”d hazard a guess that she”s a meth-head, since Gary Hawkins” script scarcely gives her any room to prove otherwise. (Still, they”re about the only women in the film”s world who aren”t prostitutes, with or without hearts of gold, so this otherwise dire family must be doing something right.)

Capable and diligent beyond his years, Gary finds temporary employment with Cage”s semi-reformed renegade Joe, who heads up a tightly-knit troupe of foresters, charged with poisoning old pine trees to make room for stronger, lumber-providing ones. There”s a none-too-subtle metaphor in there about the unchecked withering of the old South, though as depicted here, it”s already long past gone. Either together or alone, Gary and Joe alike spend virtually every scene of the film careering from one violent altercation with a known enemy to another with a random acquaintance: it turns out they share a mutual foe in skeezy, scar-faced Willie, whose motives the script keeps frustratingly opaque. (He”s also the cast”s second most disconcerting lookalike: should we ever misplace Peter Sarsgaard, it”s nice to know we have a scruffier backup.)

Before you can say it”s a dog-eat-dog world out there, Green serves us with a tawdrily obvious scene in which one dog does indeed eat another. The act takes place in the hallway of the local brothel, as we cut to images of sundry miscreants writhing and grinding and pumping iron upstairs, and it”s a curious tonal segue – a momentary dip into the world of “Lee Daniels” Joe,” if you will – from the more drably earnest miserablism that dominates proceedings. 

So, for that matter, is a rather sweet stretch of buddy-comedy foolery later on, as Joe and Gary drive drunkenly around town in addled search of that same cannibalistic dog; it”s a sequence that, like the best parts of “Prince Avalanche,” shows that Green”s apprenticeship in Hollywood comedy wasn”t for naught. It”s here where Cage, otherwise on effortfully atypical, subdued form, is really allowed to let rip; as much as the film seems calculated to remind us what the slumlord star can do when he”s Really Acting, I couldn”t help feeling this was the one section in a carefully modulated performance that plays to his manic strengths.

Indeed, I felt Cage and Green dutifully constricting themselves throughout “Joe,” suppressing their warmer, looser instincts to serve a narrative that is serious but not quite substantial. Essentially affecting as the surrogate father-son relationship at its core is, I found myself rooting for the leads only because the film”s narrow, nuance-free story world presents no other options, steaming as it is with unyielding masculine toxicity – and telegraphed as it is toward someone ending up with a shirt soaked in blood. Lying beside him in bed, Joe”s barely characterized girlfriend – who exits proceedings with a Dear John note flashed so fleetingly on screen it”s like she was never there at all – describes her fantasy of enjoying a chivalrous, old-fashioned dinner date with him. “Maybe you could hold the door open for me?” she asks plaintively, knowing full well there are no Southern gentlemen to be found around this wearisome, unfriendly film.