Nicolas Cage, left, and Tye Sheridan in David Gordon Green's movie… (Ryan Green / Roadside Attractions )
For a while now, Nicolas Cage has seemed more punch line than artistic force. More memorable for stopping by "Saturday Night Live" in 2012 to join the "In the Cage" satire, a none too flattering impression perfected by the very funny Andy Samberg, than for dreadful films like "Ghost Rider" that inspired it.
Classic Cage, the kind of performances that graced 1987's "Moonstruck" with such moody romantic charm, or 1995's "Leaving Las Vegas" with moving despair and earned him an Oscar, became distant memories. Meanwhile, marginal star turns in box office winners and losers alike multiplied. Occasionally a film like 2009's "The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans" would come along to remind you of what Cage is capable of but so rarely you had to wonder if we'd ever see the actor in full form again.
The Southern grit of "Joe" answers that with the most affecting portrayal from Cage in years. As Joe Ransom, a hot-tempered but decent, down-market ex-con who drinks and gambles away most of his earnings, the actor infuses the character with the brooding, subtle intelligence found in his best work.
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The indie costars the impressive Tye Sheridan as a kind of younger version of Joe, his future still uncharted. The teenager first seen in "Tree of Life" more than held his ground as a modern-day Huck Finn opposite Matthew McConaughey in 2012's "Mud" and goes toe-to-toe with Cage here. He is one to watch.
"Joe" is also a welcome return to more serious, sensitive fare for director David Gordon Green, who made such a stir early with an incisive cut at kids on the margins in 2000's "George Washington." After a mixed bag of comedies, such as 2008's passable "Pineapple Express" with Seth Rogen and 2011's dismal "The Sitter" with Jonah Hill, the filmmaker began making his way back with 2013's even smaller indie "Prince Avalanche," a reflective piece starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch as a two-man, tar-laying road crew working out their issues.
While still small scale, "Joe" is a muscular film, its storytelling deeper, its setting striking, its acting resonant. It is helped by screenwriter Gary Hawkins' poetically grim rendering of the late Larry Brown's bleak novel, which captures the reality of the rural South's underclass and the reliance on alcohol and anger to get by.
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That the cast includes non-actors discovered on the streets of Austin, Texas, where the film was shot, only adds to the authenticity that director of photography and frequent Green collaborator Tim Orr, production designer Chris Spellman, costume designers Jill Newell and Karen Malecki cling to like dirt on a hard-scrabble life. The score from composer Jeff McIlwain ("Mud") adds a haunting desperation.
The film opens with Gary (Sheridan) sitting on the edge of a railway track going through his father Wade's various sins. It's a long list that includes abuse, betrayal and drink. Wade, played by Gary Poulter, a drifter the filmmakers found at an Austin bus stop who passed away after the film wrapped, is excellent at telegraphing the disillusionment of the long-term homeless. The cursing and the hitting that are Wade's primary form of communication are both shocking and completely expected.
Joe runs a local work crew that spends each day in the hot sun hacking into trees, then dousing the cuts with poison so they'll be easier to clear. The trees are already dying; the crew is just speeding the process, a potent metaphor that dogs the film.
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Gary, as green as the new seedlings that will soon be planted, turns up looking for work and, despite his better judgment, Joe gives the kid a shot. It is the beginning of a relationship that will see Gary grow up and Joe step up, each trying to beat the odds and become a better man. Sheridan and Cage are magic on screen together. Their easy back-and-forth about Joe's old truck that Gary hopes to buy carries deeper implications as things go from bad to worse.
Much conspires to undo them. As hard as Gary works, as much as he tries to save, he returns each night to a garbage-filled shack, a violent father, a drunk mother and a silent younger sister he stays around to protect.
Joe's place is better, his modest house guarded by a junkyard dog who will figure into the mess that is coming. His relationships with women include an unhappy ex, a few kind-hearted hookers and local girl Connie (Adriene Mishler), who moves in for a while to avoid her own angry ex.
Most of the bad times are courtesy of Wade's entanglements with Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a local thug whose rotten teeth and sweat sheen match his personality. An early fight between Willie and Gary that ends badly runs like an electric current through the film, one the director switches on and off at all the right moments.
Though "Joe" occasionally slips and falters, the filmmakers and actors get all the hard-luck details right. Besides, it's nice to see its star out of the cage for a change.
MPAA rating: R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes
Playing: In select theaters, also available on VOD and iTunes
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