Directed by David Gordon Green. Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Adriene Mishler, Heather Kafka, Spiral Jackson, Ronnie Gene Blevins. Written by Gary Hawkins, from the novel by Larry Brown.
Nicolas Cage stars as the titular character in Joe, but a cast of non-professional actors threaten to steal the film away from him in this latest slice of neo-realist Americana from director David Gordon Green. At the center of it all is a riveting turn by Gary Poulter, who was literally plucked off the streets to become one of the most frightening screen villains in recent memory.
In this adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, adapted by Gary Hawkins, Cage plays the Joe Ransom, a backwoods Southern sonuvabitch who drinks, smokes, fights, gambles, and screws prostitutes at the local whorehouse. His interactions with drifter named Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) start with violence and escalate from there. He drives a pickup truck, and keeps his American Bulldog chained up next to his porch.
But Joe is our hero, a savior who unwittingly comes into the life of young Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in last year’s terrific Mud), the teenage son of the drunk and abusive Wade (Poulter). Gary can take care of himself, but is reluctant to stand up to his father, fearing what might happen to his mother and younger sister.
Gary comes into Joe’s life looking for work for himself and the old man, who is so inebriated during most of the film that he can barely stand up. Joe runs a crew of forest workers who poison and chop down trees, and reluctantly takes the boy on; Wade doesn’t last more than a day.
There is a genuinely compelling plotline through the movie involving Joe, the boy, the father, the drifter, and other characters, but story is overwhelmed by the atmosphere: the performances, the sets, the striking cinematography (by Tim Orr, who has shot all of the director’s features). Everything bleeds authentic Southern Gothic, and this unique portrait of a world we rarely get a glimpse of works on its own in a quasi-documentary way.
Maybe that’s why the Joe’s finale, which must resolve story threads set up earlier in the movie, feels somewhat perfunctory; by that point, we’ve become so enraptured by the setting and characters that plot almost becomes an afterthought.
Wade – a.k.a. G-Daawg, the name embroidered across the back of his jacket in tracking shots reminiscent of Drive – is at the center of it all as the barely coherent drifter who abuses his wife and children and is willing to do anything for his next fix; one of the film’s most terrifying sequences is Wade’s brutally violent (but cold and systematic) murder of a fellow homeless man over a half a bottle of booze.
But what’s even scarier than G-Daawg is the man behind the character, who wasn’t really acting at all. Gary Poulter was homeless and living on the streets of Austin, where he was ‘discovered’ by casting agents looking for authenticity. When he came in to audition for a small role, the director was so impressed that Poulter – homeless (the crew put him up at a hotel), alcoholic (he limited his booze intake to beer during filming) and prone to seizures (Poulter wasn’t acting during one scene where his character couldn’t lift himself off the ground) – was cast as the film’s third lead.
Poulter’s performance is one of the most incredible single-movie acts you’ll ever see, and his backstory – wonderfully detailed by Joe O’Connell in The Austin Chronicle – is even more fascinating than the movie itself. Sadly, G-Daawg was found dead in Austin just months after filming wrapped in early 2013, face-down in the water at the edge of a lake, surrounded by empty liquor bottles.
Next to Poulter – who also shares some memorable scenes with other non-actors, including the head of Joe’s crew (their argument was apparently a real one) – star Nicolas Cage has a lot to live up to. But his surprisingly tempered performance – always verging on insanity and occasionally going there – anchors the film and gives us at least some hope. The gritty authenticity of Joe would be too much to take without Cage’s stripped-down but sympathetic movie-star performance. Sheridan is also a standout as the young Gary, whose bond with Joe shows us that there is still some good out there.
After years of stoner comedies – Pineapple Express, Your Highness, and The Sitter, along with the HBO series Eastbound & Down – Joe is a startling return to form for director David Gordon Green, who made a splash with his debut feature, George Washington, back in 2000. That film was also notable for its use of non-professional actors, but by combining Cage’s Hollywood charisma with Poulter’s lightning-in-a-bottle real-world terror, the director has created something truly special here.