After several years of straightforward attempts at comedy following his success with Pineapple Express, director David Gordon Green returns to the realm of weighty small-town cinematic fables with Joe. Through the story of a functional yet volatile ex-con and the impoverished teenage boy who enters his life, Green's interest in exploring the many sides and conquests of his characters -- noble, ugly, tolerable, willfully neutral -- again meshes with the complications and limitations of a quaint rural atmosphere, where the law's limited reach and delayed response produces its share of inescapable trauma. Admittedly, there isn't much that Green's film touches on that hasn't been thoroughly and more adeptly mined in other films centered on unlikely, gruff role-model figures to mistreated coming-of-age children; however, its tonally complex responses to Joe's attitude towards his work, the law, and how he controls his more volatile impulses makes for a frequently captivating depiction of a flawed man with noble intentions.
Out of the starting gate, David Gordon Green reintroduces us to the austere drama that hallmarked moments in his previous films, centering on a young teenager, Gary (Tye Sheridan), chastising his father (Gary Poulter) on the ledge of a train track for being a troublesome, neglectful drunk ... and getting slugged in the face as a reply. This sets the mood for when the desperate kid stumbles onto a tree-clearing worksite and encounters Joe (Nicolas Cage), the rough-around-the-edges yet accommodating boss at the head of the operation. Despite being hospitable to Gary's inquiries about work and the respect he garners from the town's locals, the story gradually reveals more about Joe's less-savory attributes and his constant battle with rage, informing the moments when we learn about his past in prison and his rivalry with an unhinged local (Ronne Gene Blevens). These two sides inevitably collide as Gary's home life deteriorates further, nudging Joe in the difficult position of tapping into his rage and getting emotionally invested in a situation that could land him in irreparable trouble.
From walks along train tracks to the unorganized clutter of convenience stores and the inelegant rusticity of a local brothel, the film captures a realistically embellished glimpse at the interlocking parts of environments that harbor ex-cons like Joe and volatile homes like Gary's. Director Green attentively searches his scenes through Tim Orr's sublime cinematography for rays of beauty and poetry within the mundane, down to the sunset-bathed shots of workers -- including an enthusiastic Gary -- hitting trees with poisoned axes and clearing brush with machetes, showcasing his extended influence from Terrence Malick while exploring Joe's subtle shifts in temperament. It's the kind of atmosphere where somewhat slack and tolerant law enforcement is believable until circumstances force their hand, like when gunfire goes off and brawls break out in musty bars. Granted, there's not a lot of ground covered here that hasn't been hiked across in other backwater dramas like Winter's Bone, but Green's approach is admirable in its poetic grasp on self-preservation and scraping by.
There are two sides to the drama conveyed in Joe, with the rapport between the namesake lead character and the teenage boy reluctantly taken under his wing as the most absorbing of them. While adapting Larry Brown's early-'90s book of the same name, predating the likes of Mud, director Green emphasizes only subtle differences within Joe and Gary's relationship to other contemporary films of its breed: it's another impulsive former (potentially still current) criminal who becomes an impressionable force on a neglected teenager, leading to mutually beneficial impacts on one another amid a complex sense of camaraderie. The difference lies in Joe's functionality, whose employment and relatively tame social life -- excluding the trips to the brothel and the bottle-glass fights -- offers a uniquely positive source of energy for Gary in the sparse rural locale. It's a great role that almost feels built for Nicolas Cage, since the intensity in his eyes and his innate kinetic energy work well constrained within a man struggling with the law and bridling his violent tendencies with a bottle of liquor in hand ... until his darker side, and flickers of Cage's signature wildness, takes hold. He's convincing as a blemished yet noble soul, and it's easy to believe that he's the type who owns a troublesome bulldog he loves and allows a woman to share his bed in exchange for protection.
Gary's father, the source of the film's conflict, is the other side of Joe that walks on shakier, albeit compelling, ground. Since the foundation for the drama resides on the boy's quarrels with his father and his compulsion to weather the bad for the sake of his family, it becomes difficult to embrace the story as more gets revealed about the old man. Turns out, his boozy volatility towards Gary ends up only being the tip of the iceberg, where he's painted into a psychotic sociopath instead of merely an abrasive drunk with commitment issues; the things he does with his daughter and a homeless stranger for the sake of money and alcohol goes well beyond questioning what the hell's wrong with him, to the point of pure villainy. Despite a disturbingly genuine performance from the late Gary Poulter -- the homeless man whose appearance and attitude fits the twisted father perfectly -- the content built around his actions overreaches Joe's symbolic objectives about impoverished life and addiction, even if his outbursts ultimately linger in the mind and partially fascinate with the depth of his warped intentions.
There's a plan in motion for the film's unyielding intensity, though, where the wickedness rippling from Gary's father -- bolstered by Joe's rivalry with a gun-toting local, another trigger for his anger and a predictable source of frustration later on -- builds towards a conclusion that underscores David Gordon Green's fondness for the mythic possibilities of a rural setting. Layers of steadfast drama stack atop one another through the characters' responses to their individual conflicts, which creates a compelling synergy between the slow simmer of Joe's rage and the dangerous dead-end of Gary's turbulent home life if he doesn't interject. Everything folds together into this surprisingly bittersweet, if unsubtle, endgame from the director, pushing the envelope with tension and broad-stroked themes of personal sacrifice above cool-headed practicality, hinged on this unlikely anti-hero's growth and grasp on the unavoidable. Green once again finds haunting and hopeful elegance in these bleakest of scenarios, and he's proven with Joe that the cluttered, unrefined drama of mottled Americana is his wheelhouse.
Video and Audio:
David Gordon Green's inclination towards moody visual composition becomes what some could consider an unexpected source of splendor on Blu-ray, with its frank perspective on the normalcy of rural America rendered just about faultlessly through this 2.35:1-framed, 1080p AVC digital transfer. The complexity of contrast in Joe's den-like apartment, the dimness of the brother, and a cluster of high-activity nighttime sequences never swallow up details, sticking to a balanced clutch on black levels. Authentic lighting renders some beautiful reactions to upticks and downshifts in brightness, from a bright and colorful TV screen in the darkness of Joe's home to the graceful sunlight pouring in on nimble skin tones at the close of a work day. Textures and other finer points are absorbingly rock-solid and only held back by the source's limitations, from rain on a windshield to the gruffness of hair and scars on faces. Green aims for a hard blend of authenticity and lyricism, and it conveys beautifully in HD.
Joe engages the senses more than some might realize, and a essential component of that comes in the subtle cooperation between verbal tempo, organic sound effects, and the film's resonant score. The DTS-HD Master Audio holds a lot of power there, never forcing those aural elements to compete with one another while tapping into the quaintness and gristle of the small-town environment. The splashing of tree poison, the chopping of a tainted hand-axe against a trunk, the jingle of ice and the cascade of rainfall capture their desired effects, remaining crystal clear and informed by their respective locations. Louder elements, like hostile dog barks and the firing of a shotgun, are punchy and easily felt in the design's mid-range. Impressively, the film's consistent dialogue never loses its clarity in the process, ever sounding like it belongs -- lives in -- this ambiance. It's an excellent, if restrained surround presentation, well-balanced and never intrusive. Optional English and Spanish subs are available.
Commentary with David Gordon Green, Composer David Wingo, and actor Brian D. Mays:
This audio track is a very casual, sparse discussion with the participants, highlighted by intermittent insights and upticks in energy once Green interjects his opinion. He serves as a moderator and as the chief source of discussion, as he reveals pieces about Gary Poulter starting out auditioning for a small bit in the film that escalated into larger parts that ultimately led to Wade, along with the general discussion about the authenticity of casting locals. He also discusses how he became associated with the book's author and how he became associated with Mud and Take Shelter director Jeff Nichols, while he and actor Brian D. Mays actively reveal bits about Nicolas Cage's temperament and willingness to get his hands dirty with the production. Green also hits on scene-by-scene rundowns and discusses improvisation, as well as how he made adjustments to the book's exposition where needed. It's a dutiful track with insights for the patient.
Making of Joe (11:05, 16x9 HD):
A stack of interviews with David Gordon Green, Nicolas Cage, and the crew lace together with behind-the-scenes shots in this standard but insightful look at the film's assembly. It addresses the film's decision towards exploring characters in a less-innovative setting, about Nicolas Cage's commitment to the role and a neat story about snake handling, as well as some interview time with Gary Poulter where he discusses the ugliness of the character he's portraying. While it's not the longest featurette out there, it sticks to insight and honest, descriptive praise for all the filmmakers involved.
The Origins of Joe (15:55 16x9 HD):
The second piece available takes the audience on a trip through author Larry Brown's life and career, featuring archival interviews with the writer himself, some discussion about his structured routine and dedication, and the ultimate perspective on Joe's mortality that would serve as the filter for adapting the film. Screenwriter Gary Hawkins leads the charge in telling the story, which effortlessly bleeds into a discussion about his relationship with David Gordon Green, the impression left by Terrence Malick's work, and the process of bringing this book onto the screen through their talents.
Also available are a pair of wisely-trimmed Deleted Scenes (16x9 HD), along with an Ultraviolet Digital Download code.
Joe, David Gordon Green's reemergence in small-town drama with an adaptation from Larry Brown's book of the same name, ends up being a dramatically rich and cautiously devastating entry in its familiar genre, with flickers of the director's previous work's strengths laced within this story of broken homes, dangerous locals, and unlikely flawed saviors. Nicolas Cage gets the chance to both restrain his signature fiery persona within Joe and unleash it when the time's right, becoming organically potent with the personality he becomes within Green's unpretentiously amplified depiction of the hazardous cusp between civilization and countryside. Enthusiasts of this brand of film won't find much daring or fresh in the relationship between Joe and Gary, really, but Green's direction brings a distinct and expressively heartbreaking personality to the weather-beaten concept, matched with a uniquely menacing performance from Gary Poulter as the kid's imposing father. Lionsgate's Blu-ray delivers on its rustic audiovisual beauty and comes equipped with a decent slate of features that include a director's commentary and a pair of worthy featurettes. Strongly Recommended, perhaps even more so considering the release's low entry price.