Almost surreal in its hopelessness, Joe springs from a long line of movies that revel in a stewed American-redneck misery. It’s occasionally tough to tell exactly what the immensely talented David Gordon Green thinks he’s doing. Is he merely fetishizing the bad bars and muddy boots of the American South as defined by a litter of mediocre country songs? Or is he consciously evoking the mythology that a specific kind of marginalized American sells him or herself in order to survive? You can’t simply be a man drinking his night away, devoting his daylight hours to the Man. You live by self-pityingly glorifying yourself as the victim of a grand tragedy—a great, vast, poetically empty twilight netherworld.
Green is clearly getting off on his loser iconography for its inherently cinematic qualities. For whatever reason, it’s immensely satisfying to see struggling, disenfranchised signifiers filtered through the context of a fairly routine vigilante noir. Green and cinematographer Tim Orr have a particular jones for cigarette smoke, which feels almost cathartically naughty in this age that’s growing ever-relentlessly closer to the hypocritically “healthy” antiseptic future that was parodied by films like Demolition Man. Brown pervades the color scheme. Everyone is hairy and scarred and either the victim or the perpetrator (or both) of various forms of sexual and more routinely physical abuse. Aggression hangs in the air, thicker and more pregnant than the cigarette smoke. But there’s also a sense of delicacy, a suggestion of wounded, dashed longing.
The cycles of sickness that grip the small wooded community at the heart of the film are literalized in a potent symbol. Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a contractor who poisons undesirable trees so that developers can legally have them cut down so as to make room to plant stronger trees like pine. It doesn’t get any blunter than that: The weak is crushed for the strong, poisoned at the root before the former ever had a chance to grow. Joe is poisoning the trees. Wade (Gary Poulter) is a middle-aged homeless drunk who’s poisoning his wandering caravan of a family, particularly Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager with a poignantly bright, earnest face that’s looking to provide for his mother and his sister while Wade runs increasingly dangerously amok. Technically, Gary’s too young to work for Joe, but the latter has almost certainly been abused in his own past, and sees a kindred spirit.
Other than a few allusions to past hurts and grudges, that’s most of the plot, and Green marinates in it for nearly two full hours. Adapted from Larry Brown’s novel, the film truly has the feel of a printed story, in that it allows you to intuit relationships as characters hauntingly float in and out of another’s respective spheres. There are also moments of much-needed levity, of perverse dry wit that recalls the darkest jokes of Yojimbo or Blue Velvet (the sound design particularly owes to Lynch’s penchant for using industrial noises to establish timeless portent). For a film that’s obviously building toward a predictable and disappointing genre-movie climax, Joe has a surprising number of grace notes. Particularly in the early scenes with Joe and his all-black crew at work on the trees in the woods, which are moments of class unity that eclipse racial difference that Green doesn’t make a show of not making a show of. These scenes, which recall the early Peter Faulk sequences in A Woman Under the Influence, allow us to see the casual pleasures these men take in routine and in work, and in the known of established rhythms and patter. When Joe asks who wants coffee, you can tell he already knows the answer.
But the film derives its true force from the unsettling contrast that’s established between Joe and Wade. Both are set up as father figures for Gary: One, while troubled, points toward a healthier, hopeful life, while the other can ensure that the child will repeat the diseased patterns of his family. Cage isn’t conventionally convincing in the role. Like Gary Oldman, he doesn’t have a naturalist bone in his body, and he stylizes even misleadingly small details, such as how Joe often smokes a cigarette (with his thumb and pointer finger, which would be pretentious for this neck of the woods—a trick that Matthew McConaughey used to a similar effect in True Detective) or drinks a triple bourbon and Coke. Cage fetishizes Southern misery even more than Green, but that alien sense of apartness is deeply effective: Cage’s superstar remove from the other character actors and extras and found objects affirms Joe’s remove from his surroundings. It also gives us a much-needed escape from the drudgery; this star-turn is a shot of qualified glamour.
Poulter is the precise opposite of Cage: a troubled, homeless street performer who’s been uneasily positioned as an actor, who drowned in a pool of shallow water under murky circumstances before the film was released. Poulter has something that virtually no actor can fake: deadness. He doesn’t have the editorializing eyes of a performer playing a drunk, but of a man who’s pickling his humanity in poison. Yet, there’s also a fierce sense of control in Poulter’s performance, particularly in his exchanges with Cage, and in how his gruff rasp of a voice reveals reserves upon reserves of embittered fury. Green affirms his film’s classist hopelessness by a sense of daring meta positioning: By pitting a privileged movie star against a true member of the walking damned, and ironically asking you to root for the star under the guise of empathizing with the damned.
Tim Orr’s gorgeous cinematography is well-represented here, particularly in the depth of field, which emphasizes how the background textures inform the foreground. Clarity is impressive, without cleaning up the intentional grit and graininess too much. The rich color range is embodied by the ways in which the deep reds interact with the bleak dusty browns. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 has nice oomph and body; the score is nuanced and the diegetic mixing is detailed and robust.
The supplements emphasize David Gordon Green’s affection for visual and behavioral texture: His willingness to cast people off the streets, encouraging them to ad lib so as to achieve a confident mixture of movie stylization and anthropological specificity. In the audio commentary, Green often cedes the floor to actor Brian D. Mays, who engagingly recounts his experiences working with Nicolas Cage and how that movie atmosphere contrasts with his generally blue collar professional life, which is the kind of life with which Joe is mythologically concerned with capturing. The featurettes, though too short, elaborate on these working methods, particularly in regard to the deceased author Larry Brown, another struggling Southerner who wrote the novel Joe based on personal experiences. At times, Green is understandably uneasy about the film’s intersection of art and reality, especially when discussing the also-deceased actor Gary Poulter.
Joe is a fascinating, irresolvable mixture of tender, despairing blue-collar pathos, found faces, and genre macho hot air.