If Prince Avalanche was David Gordon Green subtly reminding audiences that he is one of the most talented directors in independent American cinema, then Joe is Green screaming it at the top of his lungs. It is mesmerizing to watch Green at the top of his game as he directs the hell out of the film. Like the aggressive dog that frequently startles the main character, there is a raw and dangerous energy that permeates the film.
Green paints an image of the Deep South filled with poverty and rage, the latter of which is constantly on the edge of boiling over. The film focuses on the budding friendship between Joe (Nicolas Cage) and Gary (Tye Sheridan). Joe runs a company that goes around poisoning trees so that developers can claim they have a valid excuse for cutting the trees down and building on the land. Joe and his predominantly black crew put in long hours of hard labour, but they take pride in their work. Gary happens upon the crew one day and inquires about the possibility of finding work for himself and his alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter). As Joe and Gary bond over work, Joe sees a lot of himself in the young Gary including the anger seething just below the surface.
Joe is a film about men coming to terms with their inner rage and, in some cases, fighting not to succumb to it. Both Joe and Gary strive to be good people, but the temptation to unleash their inner fury proves too great at times. This is especially true when both men have separate encounters with a local psychopath, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who has a long standing grudge against Joe. David Gordon Green uses each character to show how rage turns into hatred and leads to several bad choices. Gary is just beginning to come to term with his rage as he struggles with both assuming the role of man of the house and trying to be a good son. Despite the turbulent relationship with his father, Gary still tries to get Wade a job and talk him out of his drunken ways. It is only when his father does something truly unforgivable that Gary finally reaches his breaking point.
The other characters in the film have a far shorter fuse and frequently get themselves in trouble as a result of it. When Joe unleashes on the local cops it is clear that it is rarely about the issue at hand; but rather the years of prior violence that have shaped him. At times his fury is just as chilling as that of Wade or Willie. This allows Green to keep the emotional temperatures high, as you are never quite sure at what point Joe will practice restraint and when he will blow.
For his part Nicolas Cage does a fantastic job in the title role. He provides the right amount of subtle intensity that the character needs. Cage manages to sell both Joe’s softer, and at times humorous, side just as convincingly as his more volatile side. He evokes great chemistry with Sheridan who, along with his role in Mud earlier this year, is quickly becoming one of the finest young actors working today. While Cage and Sheridan give strong performances, the real scene stealer is Gary Poulter as the drunken Wade. Poulter brings a terrifying mixture of hopelessness and bile to the character that few actors can pull off. Even when you are disgusted by his actions, you still understand the extent which his alcoholism and pride guide him.
Similar to the poison that seeps into the trees, there is a rage within David Gordon Green’s film that slowly rots away at its characters. Green crafts a compelling drama that once again establishes him as a director who understands, and knows how to convey, human emotion.