In a career that has lurched from the heights of “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Adaptation” to the depths of “Ghost Rider” and “The Wicker Man,” Nicolas Cage delivers what may his best, most nuanced performance yet in the gritty, hypnotic and deeply moving “Joe.” Playing the title character, a kindhearted yet no-nonsense supervisor of a blue-collar work crew in rural Mississippi — and a man struggling to control sporadic, alcohol-induced outbursts — the actor tempers his propensity for histrionics, underplaying Joe’s demons in such a way that they become even more tragic.
Joe’s anger, when it flashes, tends to be righteous, though he has served time, we’re told, for assaulting a police officer. One major narrative thread is the bad blood that has arisen, apparently sometime in the recent past, between Joe and Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a cowardly local greaseball whose first appearance is to shoot Joe in the shoulder from a safe distance and then flee. Although the nature of their vendetta is never fully explained, we’re led to side with Joe.
That’s partly because Cage’s character is shown to be such a decent man. He has a girlfriend (Adriene Mishler), loyal pals — including the town sheriff (Aj Wilson McPhaul) — and a dog (named Dog). But an even larger chunk of our sympathy comes from the actor’s charisma. Cage imbues Joe with the soulful, brooding intensity of a poet or artist, even when he’s doing something as simple as showing a friend how to butcher a deer carcass.
Working from Gary Hawkins’s adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, director David Gordon Green (“Prince Avalanche”) evokes a powerful sense of hopelessness in both the people who populate the film and the place where the action is set. “Joe” is filled with prostitutes, day laborers, cops and drunks and is decorated with ramshackle houses. It’s both ugly and beautiful, but Joe stands out for his seeming ability to see both sides.
That ability enables him to notice — and care — when a 15-year-old drifter named Gary (Tye Sheridan) shows up one day looking for work on Joe’s crew. Their assignment is a strange one: hacking at live trees with axes, the business ends of which have been modified to squirt poison, so that the forest can be replanted with healthier trees. It’s a fairly surreal activity, as well as a nice metaphor for the film’s central theme, which has to do with sacrifice.
Joe soon takes Gary under his wing after noticing injuries caused by the boy’s father, Wade (Gary Poulter), an alcoholic batterer so nasty that he makes Joe look like an angel. One particularly shocking scene shows Wade killing a man for a bottle of cheap wine and then kissing his victim on the forehead. That bizarre contrast is a powerful encapsulation of the film’s paradoxical aesthetic of great squalor and great — if sometimes misplaced — compassion.
While Cage’s acting is terrific, so is that of Sheridan, whose turn in “Mud” was one of last year’s most outstanding juvenile performances. He brings true heroism to his part. But the real acting tour de force in “Joe” comes courtesy of Poulter, who, before being cast, was a homeless alcoholic. Originally considered for a small cameo, he was elevated to one of the film’s central roles after an impressive audition.
Sadly, the grizzled novice, who looks much older than his 53 years, died last year shortly after filming was completed. In “Joe,” which is dedicated to him, Poulter’s intensity matches Cage’s, note for note. The frightening verisimilitude of his portrayal lends the film a cinema verite realism that nicely mutes some of Cage’s star power.
There are a number of trains heading for a collision here: Joe and Wade; Joe and Willie; Joe and the sense of justice that both ennobles and bedevils him. Green sets all of them on their tracks and then masterfully orchestrates the inevitable crash. In the end, it feels like less of a crescendo than the slow unclenching of a balled-up fist.
R. At West End Cinema. Contains violence, obscenity and sex. 117 minutes.