Filmmaker David Gordon Green has shot two films in Central Texas now (well, three, but only two are out yet), and he gets it. He really does. For both Prince Avalanche and now Joe, he took stories that could be set anywhere and ground them in local rural settings, with characters played by residents who weren't previously professional actors. The most affecting scene in Prince Avalanche was the one in the ruins with Joyce Payne.
In Joe, I felt like I could drive 30 miles and find the unnamed town in which the film was set, with all its characters intact. In such a setting, the lead actors fit in and feel like characters, not stars. Even Nicolas Cage.
Cage plays the title character, whose job is leading a team of laborers to clear a forest for development -- hacking at trees with axes that contain poisonous liquids. He's approached by Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager in a family of drifters squatting in an abandoned shack. Gary wants to join Joe's work gang, needing money to help his family, because his perpetually drunk-and-enraged father (Gary Poulter) can't do it.
It's a simple story when I lay it out that way, but the story isn't the point here, it's the characters and the way they reveal themselves as the movie progresses, especially Joe. He's oddly passive at times, letting matters run their course in their own way. And yet some people and things affect him like dropping a match in gasoline. Don't even ask about the dog in the whorehouse. (That's a sentence I never expected to write.)
For someone who's seen too many hysterically overdone performances from Cage, his work as Joe is amazing, reminding us that when he's well directed in a well-written role, he's a marvel. He manages to portray a man keeping his passions under wraps and even when he does let loose, it's in a way that isn't histrionic. He doesn't dominate the film, either -- Sheridan holds up against him perfectly in their scenes together. But even in scenes with his work gang, or in a small grocery, the other characters get to shine.
It helps that Joe has a solid supporting cast, newcomers and professionals alike. Kay Epperson (Bernie) has only one scene (involving a deer) but afterward I wasn't the only one talking about her. Austin actress Heather Kafka appears briefly in a scene with Cage, but makes the scene memorable.
And then there's Poulter, who nearly steals the movie in a fierce and fearsome performance as Wade, young Gary's dad. This is Poulter's first and last major movie role, sadly -- the casting directors found him homeless on the street and he died not long after production wrapped. Wade and Joe are true forces of nature, battling against one another in a way that is mesmerizing and often frightening.
The score from local composer David Wingo and Jeff McIlwain is quietly brilliant, affecting but subtle, never interfering with the action onscreen. It helps the movie feel authentic, as opposed to telling us what to feel.
Joe is adapted from a novel by Mississippi author Larry Brown, but I never would have known it. I could easily have believed screenwriter Gary Hawkins hung around a small Texas town until he heard legendary stories about a memorable ex-con, then watched a lot of 50s melodramas (the movie is Sirkian in story, but without the stylistic flourishes) and scribbled this story in one marathon red-hot session.
Austin connections: The movie was shot in Central Texas with many local cast and crew members. Green now resides in the Austin area.