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Joe

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/14/14 01:17:04

"Two greats do their best work in years in the same movie."
5 stars (Awesome)

Look at "Joe", and you see a couple of people who haven't necessarily done their best work for the past few years. Some will say director David Gordon Green's "Prince Avalanche" was a return to form after a string of crude Hollywood comedies, but even those who liked it more than I can look at star Nicolas Cage's career and point out that just doing one good movie doesn't put things back on the right track; you've got to stick with it. And while there's no guarantee that this is the start of a good run for either, it's the best work either has done for some time, both working at the top of their game to make a terrific movie.

The title character, played by Cage, makes a living poisoning trees with his crew - the logic being that the land's owners are prevented from repurposing this land while healthy trees are there, but if they die, it can be developed or replanted with profitable pines (as you might expect, this is an off-the-books cash business). His path intersects in a couple of ways with Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old boy whose family has drifted into town, chased away from their last squat by Gary's father Wade (Gary Poulter) getting into trouble again. Joe gives both jobs, but only Gary impresses. And while Joe may be a better role model for Gary than Wade, that is a low, low bar to clear.

We are told, early on, that Joe has had his problems, and he talks about how so many of his decisions are made as a deliberate attempt at restraint. Restraint is, safe to say, not what Cage is best known for, and both he and Green make some good use of this: Even behind a full beard, there's often a sign of something feral in his eyes and an ever-increasing tightness in how he speaks and holds himself. This holds up even when he's softening around Gary, and that he does so is not totally surprising; for as much as he makes Joe a dangerous, combustible guy, it never seems odd that the people of this small town mostly seem to like him, there's something earnest along with the danger.

As impressive as Cage is, though, it's likely Gary Poulter who might make the most indelible impression. A homeless man who died a couple months after filming was finished, he came by the weathered look the part required honestly, but that's hardly the only thing he brings to his only film role: He makes Wade pathetic but still threatening, especially where his kids are concerned. He's an impressive bastard, and he's got a string of great scenes with Tye Sheridan, whether it's the two of them butting heads or Sheridan showing that, even though he is that miserable bastard, there is also the moments of believable father-son affection that, meager as they are, explain why Gary doesn't just completely give up on his father.

Poulter isn't the only local that Green casts; there's an ensemble around Cage and Sheridan that never feels less than authentic. This sort of rough-and-tumble corner of the South is David Gordon Green's specialty (even if he got away from it for a while); he has a great knack for presenting these characters and environments without particular sentimentality or condescension. It's a messy space, but one with character. It doesn't hurt that Green's working with longtime cinematographer Tim Orr; they know how to get just the right look out of these environments.

For as much as Joe has a great sense of place, it also works in large part as a thriller that can take place anywhere: It starts out in a tense place and builds from there, poking at dark material with youthful optimism. Gary Hawkins's adaptation of a novel by Larry Brown puts a tight focus on who these characters are now while still hinting at full, complicated histories that have real impact on the characters, whether they happened years or days before the film picks up. Green draws these threads together into a few incredibly tense scenes, and the cast never lets him down.

It's a great movie and a great partnership - for all that Green has often been brilliant, his dramas can seem sort of muted; Cage and Poulter are an injection of energy. Cage, meanwhile, has found the best person to channel his on-screen mania into a great story since that time he worked with Werner Herzog five years ago. Here's hoping each has more work this good on tap.

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