A triumphant return to form for David Gordon Green, who breathes new life into the increasingly worn-out southern-Gothic sub-genre with this compelling Texan mood piece, which finds compassion and brutality cohabiting in America’s semi-lawless backwaters that time almost forgot.
Jeff Nichols did a similar thing with ‘Mud’ last year but Green does it even better and the talented Tye Sheridan plays a pivotal teenager in both who cannot defy his circumstances but deserves better.
This is something that the title character to this one, Joe, fully understands. A deeply complex late forty something with a simplified outlook, his unpatronising response strikes a poignant note without drifting into the near unwatchable “that’s what I was like at his age” routine.
And Nicolas Cage delivers an intensely serious performance of great subtlety as the lead, toning it down in ways that have been a rarity during the last decade or so and befitting a character struggling to exercise constraint against his natural inclination.
Joe is a grizzled ex-con with eye catching tattoos, running a semi-legit tree felling business for big corporate bosses, unwilling to get their own hands dirty. He treats his men fairly enough, participates in a ritualised banter that always feels like a distraction from a more general malaise and momentarily loses it with an asshole at the local watering hole or the cops before regaining his composure out of habit, which takes on its own weariness. But he has a certain moral bearing – authority even – that disgusts him even more than his violent impulses and we cannot help but wonder what might happen if the two came together.
We find Sheridan’s dirt poor 15 year old Gary in the opening scene with his back turned to the audience and telling his destitute dad a few home truths – “selfish, mean drunk” – as they sit alongside rusty railway tracks. His Dad, Wade, holds a blank expression before casually whacking Gary in the head and walking off impassively. It feels like a momentous event but turns out to be an everyday occurrence with abuse being the old man’s main means of communication.
Non-professional actor, Gary Poulter plays Wade. One of Austen’s homeless statistics when Green stumbled across him, Poulter was tragically found dead shortly after filming, lying face down in a pool of water. There is something terrifyingly real about his performance – many actors spend their careers searching for Poulter’s world weary stare – and his character’s jaw-dropping encounter with another drunk is the most memorable of the film.
Joe becomes a quasi-father up to a point after hiring Gary for his forest gang – played by real casual labourers – but the plot is of no great significance. The interaction between the characters is everything and it never fails to hit the mark.
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