Joe is about a hard-luck, hard-drinking foreman of an illegal lumber operation who hires a 15-year-old boy who is trying to earn enough money to feed his family and get away from his alcoholic, drifter father. It’s a bleak portrait of the rural South, where people just scrape by and the local gin mill and whorehouse are about the only means of escape. Yet the film is electrified by the desperate energy of its characters, especially that of Joe. As played by Nicolas Cage, in a long-overdue return to the deep well of talent that once had him acclaimed as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Joe is a mesmerizing presence, a man composed of repressed rage and foolish tenderness with a streak of backwoods sagacity.
Joe heads a crew of uneducated black men who chop into trees with poisoned axes so that the trees will die, and then can be harvested by the lumber company. After hiring 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, the acclaimed teen actor from Mud) who is as eager as a puppy to work, Joe notices the abuse the boy is subjected to by his father, yet he avoids the situation—at first. As he explains to the young woman (Adriene Mishlar) who wants to be his girlfriend, he has to ignore situations that might pry open his carefully maintained restraint—he has already done time in a penitentiary for his bad temper.
Yet Joe can’t help intervening after he becomes friends with Gary, who idolizes him and sees him as a successful role model compared to what he’s known. At the same time, Joe is being harassed by a violent redneck he humiliated in a tavern. Joe’s choice is to keep his head down and continue the progress he’s made by killing trees—because of the intense realism of the forestry crew, the job is more affecting than its obvious symbolism—or to take matters in hand and help Gary achieve his goal of buying a pick-up truck and becoming independent. As Joe slides into involvement, his compassion leads him into a nightmare of utterly authentic Southern gothic.
Director David Gordon Green cast many amateur locals, and none is more quietly horrifying than Gary Poulter, a real-life homeless man, as Gary’s subhuman but dangerously manipulative father. Also unnervingly real are the whores and madam (Sue Rock) of the brothel, whom Joe futilely looks to for support, and his ignorant but kindly neighbors, and most strikingly, the law-enforcement officers he’s known all his life. Joe is solidly in the genre of recent films about luckless working-class stiffs, and if it’s less lyrical than Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, it is also (and admirably) less melodramatic than Out of the Furnace. And because of the interior strife that Cage so compellingly reveals, Joe may be more memorable than either of them.