Ex-con Joe (Cage) finds a new reason to stay on the straight and narrow when he becomes a reluctant father figure to troubled 15 year-old Gary (Sheridan).
It’s rare that director and literary source are as well matched — Robert Altman and Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts comes to mind — as in the latest film from David Gordon Green, who returns to his Southern Gothic roots to tackle the late Larry Brown’s 1991 novel. When the film in question also boasts a return to form by Nicolas Cage, it’s almost obligatory to sit up and take notice. Cage has, of late, been filling out his prolific résumé with films ranging from the outlandish to the out-and-out rubbish, but Joe finds him reigning in his tics and outbursts, giving his most understated performance since his two-second appearance in Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and arguably his best since he won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
Since getting out of jail, Joe (Cage) has been trying his darnedest to make an honest living, running a crew of unskilled workmen whose job it is to poison old trees to make way for new saplings — a metaphor, perhaps, for the deadly substances that have blighted the lives of so many in the hardscrabble South. Perhaps in Gary (Mud’s Tye Sheridan), Joe sees a younger version of himself, and determines to take care of the boy, as he might a stray dog. “Folks looking for trouble tend to get more than they ask for,” scarred barfly Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) observes early on, but even though Joe isn’t looking for trouble, damn it if it doesn’t find him anyway.
The last time a filmmaker tried to tackle Brown’s Southern-fried prose (Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love), the only good thing to come of it was Tom Waits’ soundtrack. Green and Brown, however, prove as well matched as their colourful names suggest: the performances (many from non-pros) are uniformly terrific, the story is slight yet compelling, the mood mournful but not miserablist. Tim Orr’s sun-dappled cinematography recalls Badlands-era Malick, and the entire tapestry is expertly woven together by Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo’s score. Whether or not you’re a fan of Brown’s writing, Green makes a convincing argument for why you should be.
An understated Nicolas Cage theres a phrase you dont get to write too often these days anchors a superbly realised film, which, like its eponymous hero, has a brittle outer shell concealing a surprisingly warm heart.