Adapted from Mississippi author Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, Joe is a moody, melancholic throwback to the regional dramas that first gained David Gordon Green (George Washington) attention, though it’s not an entirely successful about-face from the stoner comedies with which he’s lately occupied himself (Pineapple Express). A subdued Nicolas Cage (clearly happy to be playing a person instead of a tic-laden freak) is terrific as the title character, an ex-con who runs a semi-illegal business poisoning trees for corner-cutting corporations. That said, he’s a good boss, always paying on time and employing anyone in need. So when troubled 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) crosses his path, there’s an instant fatherly connection—something the boy could use, considering his own dad (Gary Poulter, exceptionally scary) is a roaring-mean drunk.
Joe and Gary’s mentor-protégé relationship is the heart of the tale, though the film frequently shuffles off the narrative path to sketch in the economically depressed environs. Working with his usual cinematographer Tim Orr, Green captures the bucolic beauty of the setting even as he populates it with down-and-out people (many of them nonactors) who might have stepped out of a Faulkner story. The movie is best in these seemingly improvised side vignettes (there’s a particularly memorable one in which Joe instructs a local how to properly skin a deer). Yet Green, as is his wont, too often strains for poetic effect through flowery voiceover and tone-deaf interactions—like those between Joe and his latest short-term girlfriend—that undercut the genuineness.
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