Joe (Nicolas Cage) keeps his id on a chain in his driveway. First time you see it, you might think it’s a dog – a fierce, beautiful, brown-and-white spotted American bulldog – but as soon as he unleashes it on another dog in a whorehouse you know the truth: The dog’s a symbol for the beast in the man.
That David Gordon Green’s Joe, adapted by Gary Hawkins from Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, gets away with such bald symbolism is a testament not only to this darkly polished little nugget of a movie’s deft execution, but to the filmmaker’s extraordinarily impressive return to form. Not since his early stretch of movies – George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow, all made in his 20s – has the Arkansas-born filmmaker stepped so surely in the muck of messy male affliction, and his Joe is not only their equal but better.
Set in the rural scrubland near Austin, Tex., where the hulking, alcoholic ex-con Joe has a business poisoning skinny trees so a logging company can come in and plant hearty new ones – another expertly deployed symbol in that – Green’s movie depicts what happens to a wounded man when the chance for redemption comes at a terrible cost. Left to watch over a teenage boy (Tye Sheridan) whose homeless family is presided over by a monstrously cruel derelict (Gary Poulter, a non-professional whom Green cast from the street, and who died shortly after filming), Joe’s demons start to surge and spill over. The violence that he warns people not to provoke, and that keeps him lying awake drunkenly staring at the ceiling most nights, is snapping at its chain as surely as that dog outside, and if set free will do some killing before it’s stopped. The question then is this: Is the killing worth it if the kid can be saved?
There’s a long tradition of Joes in American fiction and movies: men with dark pasts who struggle to keep their inner animals contained, but whose violence is summoned in the cause of ending even greater violence, and whose ultimate redemption usually comes in self-sacrificial form, at the cost of their own death. In some contexts these are men who have never fully left the field of battle – from the Civil War to Afghanistan – and in others they’re men who’ve never completely escaped other kinds of psychic lockup: jails, abusive childhoods, addictions.
But if this stark figure is familiar, the flesh Green puts on the bones is both thick and particular. Much of this is the result of the director’s established practice of mixing non-professional with professional performers, and with mixing moments of improvised dramatic incident with others of high (and highly formalized) action: In one scene, you’ll be watching a frighteningly convincing Gary Poulter showing his son his break-dancing moves from a vodka-stupefied sitting position, in another the same man is seen dancing in slow motion like some dream of someone he might once have been. The point is, the shifting tones keep the movie both buoyant and firmly grounded, and playing out in a sphere pitched somewhere between the mythic and the muddy.
But none of this would work with anywhere near the power it does without Nicolas Cage, whom Green has smartly cast in this sometimes maddeningly erratic and ill-disciplined actor’s most perfectly suited role since Leaving Las Vegas and Adaptation. From his first appearance behind a rainy windshield, tilting his morning libation home, to the terrified look in his eyes when he realizes he’s very likely to kill the scumbag who’s just provoked him in a bar, Cage’s portrayal of a man who lives in abject terror of his own potential is both frightening in itself and heartbreaking in its futility. Joe’s greatest curse is that he knows himself only too well, and that the only way to get free of the beast is to let it loose and run like hell.