Take the relaxed but still hefty comedy of Prince Avalance, add some heavy does of blue collar bleakness, a little violence, a sort of continuation of Mud's harder edged coming of age story, and seriously one of Nicolas Cage's best performances ever, and you get a pretty good idea what Joe accomplishes. My list of favorite 2014 movies has been a little pathetic so far, but don't let that undermine Joe's new place at the top. This movie is a must see.
Joe takes place during the meeting point of two stories that could probably occupy entire films of their own. One belongs to Joe, a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, but hard-working and largely honorable guy with severe anger issues. While not much to look at, Joe is a good man and the small community of people surrounding him know it. But Joe also has some serious demons and seems on a collusion course with the penal system no matter what he does.
Nicolas Cage is absolutely incredible in the film. Joe's combination of nearly mythic altruism and malice makes him a very difficult character to pull off but Cage brings the ingredients together into an endlessly watchable figure. This is the kind of guy who will go from butchering a deer to getting in a gunfight to pulling a bullet from his shoulder to watching TV seemingly in a matter of minutes, and it's amazing that Cage can execute all this without breaking the tone of David Gordon Green's deep and unblinking Americana authenticity.
The second story belongs to Tye Sheridan as the fifteen-year old Gary, a paragon of old school adolescent masculine virtue. He's an eager and hard worker, he takes care of his family, he saves his money, he fights when necessary, and he never complains. Once again, we're dealing with a near-mythical archetype. Between Gary and Joe, it's almost like the movie was made solely for the Ron Swansons of the world.
These two meet when Gary stumbles upon Joe's highly symbolic work site in an outlying forest. With Prince Avalanche, we got to witness the day-to-day of guys who draw highway lines. This time we watch a crew of men systematically murder forests, and it's even more mesmerizing. They basically chop into trees with a hatchet that pukes highly toxic poison into the trees' broken surfaces with each swing. The idea is to kill unwanted trees so better ones can take their place.
Joe and Gary bond over work, but what really unites them comes in the form of solid and unambiguous antagonism. Joe has frequent violent run-ins with pestering bully, Willie-Russell, played by a wildly sinister Ronnie Gene Blevins. Meanwhile, Gary deals with an abusive, alcoholic, deadbeat father who looks pathetic but displays more evil than you'd think. David Gordon Green paints both these characters with pretty broad strokes, and when they join forces later in the film, it's almost like we're watching the indie-drama version of a comic book movie. And I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. David Gordon Green brings a lot of artistry to Joe, but that doesn't mean it's not absolute pulp.
And that's why I love it so much. While I could listen to Joe speak for hours and hours, the film succeeds mostly because it stays within a surprisingly typical plot and delivers story beats which are sure to entertain. That it does so while also delivering a strangely comic world and a Nicolas Cage role that once and for all legitimizes his status as a notable actor, makes Joe a very, very hard to dislike film. See it the first chance you get. And the second.