Role models can be found in the unlikeliest of places. And they can come in some unlikely forms.
Take the title character in Joe, played by a laconic yet often volcanic Nicolas Cage. By any measure, he’s a despicable person. But in the eyes of an abused 15-year-old boy, he can be a savior.
Director David Gordon Green takes on a story adapted from the Larry Brown novel by screenwriter by Gary Hawkins. Hardly a redeeming quality can be found in any of these tough-talking misfits who live in a rural Texas town.
Green shucks the characters of their literary origins, making them feel authentic. He also shows a comfortable familiarity with the land, and assembles a wide range of non-professional actors to play a crew working for Joe. Their task? Illegally poisoning trees to clear a forest.
Green methodically builds his narrative with a succession of these scenes, painting a picture of Joe and the surroundings that have formed him, making him an ex- (and probably future) convict.
Ultimately, Joe becomes a tale of revenge, the stupid kind of revenge fostered by petty acts easily ignored by anyone who is neither drunk nor stupid. Even Joe’s dog takes revenge. And in this cloistered gathering, everyone always has a grudge against someone.
Life changes for Joe when Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan), just 15 years old, asks Joe if he and his father can work on his forest-clearing crew. Joe hires them, noticing right away that the boy works hard. His dad, on the other hand, complains and slacks off. Later, Joe witnesses the father hitting the boy.
The abuse settles in Joe’s mind, however, as director Green continues to paint Joe into a corner with other confrontations, forcing him into action even though he knows the final outcome could be brutal, if not fatal.
Joe grips the viewer, though sometimes too slowly. Green has grown enough as a storyteller to trust himself to meander. But even when he slows things down, Green keeps the film rolling toward an inevitable crisis.
The crisis in Joe comes with a jolt.
BOO ALLEN is an award-winning film critic who has contributed to the Denton Record-Chronicle for more than 20 years. He lives in Dallas.
Rated R, 117 minutes