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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience. MOBILE version |
. "Joe"

With no terrorist gunrunning to track down, or supernatural bike rider soaring through hoops of fire, "Joe" brings Nicolas Cage back to his character-defining roots and reminds us why a lot of us are so fond of the guy.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is a guy with faults which we're prone to forgive because of the more positive features of his makeup. He struggles to keep himself calm and assured, without a sign of the minute-by-minute internal anguish about avoiding any act that could get him back in the slammer. Probably as smart as anyone in town, his choices for income are limited in this small Mississippi town.

To make a living, he has contracted himself out for the local lumber company as a foreman running a crew of laborers to kill trees that aren't productive for the company. The goal is to clear the land so that the dead trees can be replaced with paying stock.

While the operation is about as un-PC as it gets -- an insult to ecological norms -- the evolving developments dissuade you from walking out of the theatre in protest. You adjust to what men of this poor community must do to provide.

Despite heavy drinking, gambling, whoring and a tendency to explode when the fuse burns through his wall of control, Joe is also fair, honest and generous. The positive qualities provide a balance but they're a challenge to maintain.

What he's about to come up against will test every ounce of his control. It is foretold in a prologue scene: A thin, unkempt man with a grey head of hair and beard the likes of which you might associate with the denizens of skid row, sits along a railroad track as a teenage boy who we'll come to know as Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) unleashes a tirade against his elder for his horrendous abuse as a father and husband. The grey man's face remains neutral as he listens, allowing the rant to go on. When he's had enough, he slams a fist into the boy. Everything the boy said was true.

The man is Wade Jones, one of the most predatory sociopaths ever portrayed in film.

When Gary, a sweet, forgiving kid whose never been to school in all his fifteen years, catches wind of Joe's operation, he thinks of providing for his troubled mother and sister and comes looking for a job. Joe ignores the lad's youth so long as he's capable of performing the tough rigors of the work, and hires him. Which proves to be a good choice as far as eagerness to keep up with the men goes -- except that it also sows the seed of tragedy when Wade learns about his son's job and comes seeking one for himself.

While Joe develops a true fondness for Gary, taking pleasure in himself as a role model, he becomes fully aware of Wade's malingering, fires him, and discovers that he's been taking Gary's pay. But anger and grief is only beginning to show up in the wake of Wade's savage and violent cruelty.

With Texas locations standing in for Mississippi, the visual key of the film (DP Tim Orr, "The Sitter") uses the grey overcast and somber treescapes to emphasize the harsh reality of hope struggling with justice as it is blunted by a prevailing madness.

As unsettling as the story is, and as deep as it goes in character depth, the draw is Cage returning to the fold of serious drama, even if the actor's take-home pay for this effort has got to be a small fraction that his recent work has afforded him ("Croods," "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," "Drive Angry," etc.)

Equally fascinating, though for other reasons, is Sheridan, who played a boy with a similar relationship to a male ex-con (Matthew McConaughy in "Mud") and almost stole the show with his acting instincts, energy and naturalness. Anyone who has seen both films will not be surprised that this wunderkind is in five more yet-to-be-released films (at the time of this writing). You can just imagine the pile of scripts weighing down his agent's desk.

Some praise goes to director David Gordon Green for his choice to play the villain -- an actual homeless guy (Gary Poulter, aka, G-Daawg) who had never acted before. He died shortly after the production wrapped and before he could see the shuddering effect he had on the film. Green also used actual working people for Joe's tree team.

The poison is not only for the trees. It's the metaphorical atmosphere of the super-realistic, microscopic examination of the corrosive effects of evil. Green keeps the tale, based on Larry Brown's 2003 book, within a tight framework which, by the end, leaves an aftertaste of the toxic horror of a beast among 'em. You may come to realize you've been unconsciously trying to squirm away from what you've been witnessing on screen.

Not that the heartache satisfies dramatic obligations. Gary will again shout accusations at his tormenter but is powerless to do anything that would change the balance between them. His admirable effort to provide for his family against the wishes of an avaricious demon who holds all the cards makes him a sad, helpless figure. And coming under Joe's protective wing offers only transient hope.

Joe, for his part, gives the kid more credit than he deserves, which only confirms his own shortcomings. Satisfaction is non-existent. Helplessness is all we've got as we become locked into a harsh realism with morbid forebodings from which there is no lasting relief, let alone escape.

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                                                                              ~~  Jules Brenner  

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