A dozen years ago, Nicolas Cage was still considered a serious actor and David Gordon Green was considered a promising new filmmaker. A few years later, both of their reputations shifted dramatically: Cage became the butt of countless jokes about his overacting in subpar genre efforts and Green took a curious detour into largely derided studio comedies. Green started crawling back to the understated narrative style that put him on the map with his strange twist on the buddy movie formula "Prince Avalanche" earlier this year, while Cage hasn't done much worth talking about since 2009's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." But both men finally get the chance to hit their sweet spots with the moody Southern gothic drama "Joe," the very definition of a return to form.
For Green, "Joe" echoes his 2004 thriller "Undertow," another Southern-fried crime drama, although by contrast the new movie favors tone and character over plot. Marking the director's second adaptation after the similarly melancholic "Snow Angels," Green's Mississippi-set country tale culls from late novelist Larry Brown's portrait of the eponymous lumberer (Cage) who takes neglected teen Gary (Tye Sheridan) under his wing. Regardless of the source material, this is a movie firmly in the tradition of Green's initial trio of efforts -- "George Washington," "All the Real Girls" and "Undertow" -- in that it combines a documentary-like portrait of average, lower class Americans with lyrical flourishes in the vein of Terrence Malick. As Joe, a portly, stone-faced alcoholic with good intentions but an equal amount of uncontainable rage, Cage makes a surprisingly believable screen presence. While treating his largely African American staff of lumberers with a kind-hearted sensibility, he's constantly haunted by his criminal past and the lure of the bottle.
Yet "Joe" mainly derives an emotional foundation from the experiences of its younger protagonist. Seen in the first shot exchanging harsh words with his irredeemably frazzled addict of a father, Gary maintains an enterprising ability to transcend his limited conditions with an attitude that leads Joe to help him out. There's a distinct tenderness to the moment Gary eagerly comes home to his ramshackle cabin and excitedly tells his dazed, intoxicated parents about his new gig. By constantly shifting between Gary's eagerness to push ahead and Joe's gloomy state of regret, the movie creates an immersive depiction of two extremes in small town life.
Eventually, a plot gradually emerges in the form of a villainous local (Ronnie Gene Blevins) whom Joe faces down at a bar and then has to confront several times over. But the truth is that nobody really has the power to mess with Joe: A fascinating early bit in which the character nabs a snake in front of his fellow lumberers neatly illustrates his fearless disposition, as does a later showdown with an unsuspecting police officer. Far from perfect, he's nonetheless a good-intentioned man who finds his balance in a no-nonesense style. As a member of his staff explains to Gary, "Keep it real with Joe."
While suffering from countless vices, his tendency to confront dangers rather than recoil from them provides the ideal role model for the cocksure Gary. Cage throws himself into the morally complex subject, but never falls into the trappings of overstatement that have hounded him in recent years. While his tendency to get hammered and waste his days away with prostitutes puts the role in league with "Port of Call New Orleans," the palpable sadness of his state has more in common with his "Leaving Las Vegas" days.
He's also a superb personification of the movie's paean to the daily struggles of the working class, a world seemingly caught in limbo between intense work ethic and somber resignation. "This is no frontier anymore," one character sighs, epitomizing the dreary, post-apocalyptic quality of the narrative as it depicts a frail world that Gary desperately hopes to escape -- and Joe has learned to accept.
With such a tightly crafted mood, the story itself can't always keep pace. The series of crimes that eventually enter into the scenario lack the same credibility of the people involved in them, and "Joe" stumbles through a murky mid-section that repeats some of the same basic showdowns between its central characters a few too many times over.
However, even then, it remains a thoughtful portrait of Southern despair, and efficiently culminates in a suspenseful arrangement of images that realize the full range of strengths from the creative team involved: Green's longtime cinematographer Tim Orr and composer David Wingo imbue the movie's dense atmosphere with both poetic and lived-in qualities. The bright colors of the closing shot create a marked contrast to the brooding visuals preceding it. Just as "Joe" marks a new beginning for some of its characters, the same description applies to its director and star.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Roadside opens "Joe" in limited release this Friday along with iTunes and video-on-demand platforms. Cage's star power has waned in recent years and the film isn't exactly a traditional star power, so its box office prospects are limited. But there should be enough interest in the actor and the genre for VOD business to prove solid.
A version of this review was published during the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.