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Review by James Banks
Joe Bageant tried to summarize rural Southern life with his book title, Deer Hunting with Jesus. With his new movie Joe, David Gordon Green presents the South’s Goth image, one that might be described with a title such as Deer Hunting, but Jesus Couldn't Make It This Weekend. All of the classical tropes of a Flannery O'Connor story are present--from the acts of sometimes irrational violence to the hunched over grotesques who still have a pulse, but are not actively living. The only thing absent is the religiosity. Instead, Green sets out to find love among the ruins.
Green is best known as the director of the stoner comedy Pineapple Express, although those who used to browse the independently-financed movie section at video stores--back when video stores existed--might know him as the director of George Washington and Undertow. While these movies were also about how the other half lives in Mr. Green's native Dixieland and dealt with issues of coming of age, their overlap with Joe more or less ends there. Undertow had its violent characters, but there was no indication that, in the rural Georgia where the film was set, these individuals were standard issue.
This is not the case in the world of Joe, a world where one can buy love for about the price of a decent mobile phone and be murdered for displaying a cheap bottle of wine to the wrong drunk. This does not mean that the weedy, cragged streets are overrun with anarchy. But the pillars of this community do not adhere to any sense of duty—only the occasional recourse to human sympathy. One of these pillars is the movies pseudonymous protagonist, played by Nicholas Cage. An ex-convict in a town where that is probably as common as graduating middle school, Joe manages business poisoning condemned trees for a lumber company and appears to be reasonably successful—probably by hiring cheap labor, scrapping the healthcare plan and not buying anything manufactured after 1990.
As the foreman of a crew which works without gloves or masks and which gives hatchets which spit lethal toxins to teenagers, Joe is probably violating one or two OSHA regulations, but considering that his community is less technologically advanced than Tombouctou, his ability to provide troubled individuals with a job likely saves their lives. This is certainly the case when Gary (Tye Sheridan) a fifteen-year-old shows up looking for work, with a mentally-disabled mother and sister and abusive father in tow. Joe knows that there is trouble brewing from the first time that Gary brings his drunken father (Gary Poulter) to work. But, as he says, he “can’t get his hands dirty in every little thing.”
This sounds reasonable enough when Joe already has his hands dirty in a lot of bigger things, such as harassment from the county deputies who want to see him returned to prison, a lingering drinking problem which often puts a whiskey bottle in his non-driving hand, and an ongoing feud with another local bumpkin named Willie (Ronnie Gene Bevins) which frequently leaves both of them with critical injuries—though neither one of them ever goes to the hospital.
Even before meeting Gary, Joe makes clear that he does not want to be any type of savior. Picking up a cotton mouth by the neck when it threatens his crew, he doesn’t take long to decide not to crush this serpent’s head: Why would he? It’s his friend. But then, in a place as down-and-out as this, there are not too many friends to go around. Though there are brief glimpses of the civilized world, such as a police chief who appears to know more about Joe’s children and grandchildren than the main character himself does and a convenience store owner who cares enough about the world beyond the county line to recount baseball scores, humanity has receded into the most remote depths of the characters’ psyches as they hobble about their daily routines mechanically. The world of Joe may still be populated by homo sapiens, but the ones to which we are thoroughly introduced have abandoned their humanity to satisfy their baser impulses.
This is especially true of Poulter’s abusive alcoholic, Wade. As a man so worn down by his actions and environment that he looks old enough to be his son’s grandfather, Poulter becomes one of the most memorable villains that you are likely to see this summer—no small feat, given that it is during the summer that the comic book villains come out of hiding to flex their muscles. Rather than being competently or actively evil, Poulter plays a man who is made evil by his passivity: a man so driven by his unwillingness to work for the substances to which he is addicted that he never questions his inclination to make both of his children slaves of one sort or another.
Joe leans more heavily on its performers than Green’s previous independently financed movies. Whereas the influence of Terence Malick—who helped produce some of Green’s earlier work—was front and center in George Washington and Undertow, Joe is a much more straightforward narrative with conventional pacing and narrative arc. This does not mean that Green has lost his interest in the minutiae of rural life or the idiosyncrasies that contextualize the story, but there are no scenes which are not related to the plot—or one of the subplots—in some way; and, with the exception of a brief montage voiced over by Joe as he anticipates the perils of his impending vigilantism, the contemplative narration from the earlier films is gone.
This is not a bad thing, especially since, in addition to Mr. Poulter, Joe has a formidable cast. Nicholas Cage is not always an actor with a great deal of discernment, but he is one with considerable ability, particularly when he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. As in The Bad Lieutenant, he manages to bring empathy and humanity to a character who seems to be on autopilot until it is his time to die. Tye Sheridan (mostly known for his lead in last year’s Mud) also gives a strong performance as Joe’s troubled protégé. While Sheridan will probably eventually have to develop beyond the role for which he is often typecast, the “impoverished Southern teen,” he brings all his energy to the role of a kid struggling to be the man of the house while also constantly being beaten down by his father.
The performances are what to remember about the movie; ultimately, it is a movie about the rediscovery of human sympathy in a place where such a commodity has no premium. It will probably not change the way that you see the world, and you are likely to walk away from the theater saying to yourself "That's certainly not the world that I know." But Joe still manages to create characters that we, as an audience, care about; it reinforces the notion that, even in a modern Gomorrah, the line separating good from evil cuts through every human heart and it is usually still possible to find it. Perhaps this is not a profound insight, but it is one that I don't regret hearing repeated.