Just when you think you can write off Nicolas Cage as a foolish squanderer of talent — carpet-bombing his reputation with misconceived garbage like “The Wicker Man” or, Lord have mercy, two “Ghost Riders” — he’ll uncork a corker of a performance. He does just that in “Joe,” his latest picture.
“Joe” is a small-scale, expertly acted character study in which Cage plays an ex-con trying to make a quiet living in a backwater Texas town and trying, above all, to keep certain troublesome character tendencies in check. Chief among those is a tendency toward sudden outbursts of explosive violence, a trait that landed him in prison in the first place.
He’s basically a good man — a fair boss to a gang of laborers, a helpful neighbor, a protector of damaged people — who struggles hard to keep his bad side at bay. His protective instincts kick in big time when a haunted-looking but scrappy teen (Tye Sheridan) shows up looking for a job. The kid is the product of a hellish home ruled by a drunken, violent-tempered father (Gary Poulter), but he’s got spirit and is willing to work hard. Joe sees a lot of himself in the boy and takes him under his wing.
Cage’s performance is self-contained and careful. Director David Gordon Green, working from a script by Gary Hawkins (based on a Southern Gothic novel by Larry Brown), allows Cage to take his time establishing the character, illuminating his brooding nature and his reticent sense of kindness in subtle gestures and facial expressions. Sheridan, previously seen in “Tree of Life” and “Mud,” gives an excellent performance that is as understated as Cage’s and similarly affecting.
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Green skillfully uses the picture’s downscale backcountry milieu to convey a strong sense of despair and foreboding, and there’s a tragic inevitability to the story as Joe’s kindly instincts, once engaged by the kid’s plight, lead to violence and devastating consequences.
Soren Andersen: firstname.lastname@example.org