It's been 5 million years since humanity hauled itself from the swamp, and according to Joe director David Gordon Green, we're devolving back into muck. While the stoners of Green's Pineapple Express regressed from men to boys after a few puffs of weed, this grimly beautiful drama starring Nicholas Cage makes mankind's progress feel even hazier and more hopeless, as though we may as well grab our weapons and retreat to our caves.
Our setting is rural Texas, that stretch where there's nothing but scrub brush and wasted space. The resources that matter — money and respect — are so scarce that men fight each other for a larger share. (Women, at least, are plentiful. This hard land has ground down their hope, making them desperate and cheap.) For extra gloom, the film tosses in frequent thunderstorms, yet none of the characters have the foresight to own an umbrella. However, most do own attack dogs that function as snarling, snapping extensions of their own fear. One of Green's wry running jokes is that every home visit starts with an apology for the growls.
Cage plays Joe, an ordinary name for an ordinary-looking man who becomes more complex with every scene. He's the boss of a small-time unit hired to poison the trees on a land baron's acreage — in a cynical loophole, the lumber company isn't allowed to cut down the trees unless they're already dying. Justifies Joe, "They're weak, not good for anything."
It's a metaphorical job, the sort Samuel Beckett might have dreamed up for the stage, but to Joe and his half-dozen men, it's an honest living. When they drive into town for hookers and beer, at least they know they came by their cash squarely. There are some men there who don't, like the drunk (Gary Poulter) who steals from his hard-working 15-year-old son, Gary (Tye Sheridan of Tree of Life), which is the sort of dour business that Joe's content to ignore as long as he can, even though the boy's one of his best employees. When Joe stops ignoring things, he gets into too much trouble.
Lots of movies have characters like Joe, guys with a shady past and a skewed moral code. Cage has played several himself. A more conventional actor would make him a hardass who never lets down his guard. Cage makes him compelling. You might expect Cage to break out his patented strange, to do that Cage thing filmmakers have been hiring him for as though their greatest goal is a couple viral GIFs. He's been in on the joke, signing onto movies he must know are worthless and then simply amusing himself. But Joe is Cage's periodic reminder that he's one of his generation's great talents. Perhaps he's reminding himself.
Here, Cage feels rooted to the ground. His pecs are bigger, his footfalls feel heavier, his smile, rare as it is, feels real. He delivers great lines without leaning on a lunatic leer, and every time you expect him to explode, he keeps the performance in check. Which means when Joe does do crazy things, like grab a cottonmouth snake, try to outrun a cop, or make an angry five-minute pit stop at a whorehouse, we're genuinely unnerved.
As in Leaving Las Vegas, the role that won him an Oscar, Cage is again playing an alcoholic. Joe's drinking, like everyone else's in town, goes unacknowledged. Again and again, these hair-trigger, pride-hungry men collide without the safety of sober self-control. In one fight, Joe screams at the bartender to call the cops, but it's to protect the other guy from himself.
Perhaps Joe suspects he's surpassed his life expectancy, which in caveman years he has. When the girl he's sleeping with asks if they have a future, he sighs, "I like you, too, but what's the point of it." He's more interested in seeding his wisdom in teenage Gary, so that the next generation will know how to be a man. One lesson is that women love fancy lighters. Another is a soliloquy about grit and survival. "Every day they hurt," says Joe of the workers he employs. "There's no frontier anymore."
Joe is a miserably perfect portrait of a culture on the brink of collapse. Green found his supporting cast on the street, a stunt justified by the fact that they can actually act. Joe's laborers are actual laborers, and his second-in-command, the wonderfully mush-mouthed Brian Mays, was found at a barbecue restaurant. The wild-haired Poulter, making a phenomenal debut as Gary's abusive drifter dad, was a homeless man Green's casting director discovered at an Austin bus stop. He's fantastic. If only Poulter had lived long enough to hear it — he drowned in a river two months after the film wrapped.
On camera, Poulter is one of the villains of the film. In life, and in death, he's its conscience. Green and Cage capture the self-inflicted hardships of these suffering men. By his own example, Poulter makes us care.