Adapted from Mississippi writer Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, ‘Joe’ is a moody, melancholic throwback to the dramas that first gained director David Gordon Green (‘George Washington’) attention, and which he ditched to make stoner comedies like ‘Pineapple Express’. A subdued Nicolas Cage (clearly relieved to be playing a person instead of a nervous tic on legs) is terrific as Joe, an ex-con who runs a semi-illegal business poisoning trees for corner-cutting corporations. That said, he’s a good boss, paying his staff on time and employing anyone in need. When troubled 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, the kid from ‘Mud’) crosses his path, there’s an instant father/son 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, and Cage and Sheridan have a natural rapport that holds your attention and tugs (not too manipulatively) at the heartstrings. The film also sketches in the economically depressed rural South. Green captures the beauty of the landscape even as he populates it with people on their uppers (many of them played by real locals). The movie is its best in these seemingly improvised side vignettes (there’s a particularly memorable one in which Joe shows a guy how to properly skin a deer). Yet Green, as is his wont, too often strains for poetic effect with a flowery voiceover and tone-deaf interactions – like those between Joe and his latest short-term girlfriend – that undercut the genuineness.