Joe isn't much for small talk. He laughs when he finds something funny. When he's angry, he snarls. He's a bit like the killer dog he keeps, an American bulldog named 'Dog.' But Joe's simplicity hides a complex life. He's an ex-con, having done time many years ago for assaulting a cop. He still likes to mix it up with the local cops, especially the ones who are just looking for someone to mess with. He's a respectable citizen, though, working as a supervisor for a crew that kills trees so lumbermen can cut them down. The men who work for Joe seem to respect him and like him. "He's got a lot under his belt," one of them says early in the film, but there's a sense in Joe that nearly everyone in this backwoods area has something boiling underneath the surface. Later in the film a friendly police chief tells Joe, "I used to be as bad as you." Joe answers, "You were worse."
Nicolas Cage plays Joe as a slightly weary, but still hostile character. "I made the mistakes, but they won't let me live them down," he says of the cops who still harass him. With his full beard and shambling walk, Cage cuts through the movie like a slightly faded viking warrior. It's his best work in years, making us remember when he was one of Hollywood's most adventurous young actors back in the 1980s, the sort who seemed like he was trying for an Oscar every time he came up to the plate.
What is most intriguing about Joe is that he's not entirely bitter. He has fun at times. He knows the local prostitutes well, he even has a young girlfriend who seems fond of him. Local shop owners seem to like him, too. He has enemies, including Willie Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) a scarred up lunatic who loses to Joe in a barroom fight and then tries to shoot him a few days later. Joe seems indestructible, pulling the bullet out himself.
Into Joe's life comes Gary (Tye Sheridan), a 15-year-old looking for a job. Gary's home life is a tragic mess, as he suffers regular beatings and embarrassments at the hands of his drunk father (Gary Poulter), a dipsomaniac who calls himself "G-Daawg" and can be seen break-dancing in the dusty streets in the middle of the day. In Joe, Gary sees some better version of what a man should be. Joe treats him squarely, pays him, and shows trust in him. When Gary brings his father to Joe for a possible job, the old drunk gets himself fired on the first day. Joe is hesitant at first, but he knows Gary needs a friend. "I can't get my hands dirty on every little thing," he says to his girlfriend. But Joe's heart is too big to let Gary flail in the wind while G-Daawg causes trouble.
The bonding between man and boy is complete when Joe's dog goes missing and Gary helps him find her. In gratitude, Joe promises Gary that if G-Daawg ever beats him again, "I'll fuck him up." Then he gives Gary a cigarette lighter to impress the ladies. (Cage's fans will enjoy a scene where Joe teaches Gary how to make a "cool face," instructing him to stand as if he owns land, squint as if he's in pain, and then smile through the pain. Cage, who has endured his share of jokes about his acting style, revels in the scene.)
We know that there will eventually be an encounter between Joe and G-Daawg, and we know it will be bloody. Director David Gordon Green lures us to the showdown with considerable grace and skill. The movie was filmed in and around Austin, Texas, but it feels bigger, as if Green somehow enlarged the sky and the landscapes. There's so much roughness here - everyone seems to own a rabid dog, and no one thinks twice about skinning a deer in the living room. Even the weather seems mean, rain hammering down as if nature itself wants to prevent these people from getting ahead. Green has moved so deftly between comedy and drama over the years that I wonder if we have a new Howard Hawks in our midst. Along with regular collaborator Tim Orr (cinematography) and screenwriter Gary Hawkins, Green turned Larry Brown's novel into something both dour and epic, a film that should be remembered alongside the likes of Sling Blade, Shane, and Grand Torino.
The acting is excellent across the board. I'd laud Poulter as one of the finds of the year, but I've learned that he died shortly after the movie was made. Green often casts locals in his movies, and Poulter was simply an Austin "street entertainer" who needed a job. His G-Daawg is one of the great movie villains of recent years. As for Cage, there was talk a few years ago that he'd nearly taken the main role in The Wrestler, but it went to Mickey Rourke. Some lamented that a great role had fallen through Cage's fingers, something he'd needed in recent years. Just as well. He has a great role here, and shows he can still deliver. Joe is quite an achievement.
Read more about Gary Poulter, http://donstradley.blogspot.com/2014/04/one-and-done-gary-poulter-rip.html