Booze and smokes and meanness. It's what's for breakfast. And lunch and dinner. This is what the men of Joe live on. And if a lad hangs around these men long enough, he'll pick up some life lessons, like how to make hookers think you have money and how to abuse dogs while convincing yourself you love dogs and why the cops have it in for an ex-con and how to have "good" reasons to be violent, like if a guy asks if your sister is pretty. Then you can beat him up, and later you get to refer to him as "that guy I beat up by the bridge."
By a remarkable coincidence, a lot of guys in this unnamed rural Texas town are named That Guy I Beat Up.
Oh, it's all very masculine and mopey and miserable. Including the fact that 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) is learning his lessons well. He doesn't much like his daddy, Wade (Gary Poulter), who's a useless old drunk — that's Gary's description, and it is extremely kind — but that hasn't stopped him from internalizing unthinking reflexive violence as useful in many social situations. It's sad and ironic that a better role model for him is Joe (Nicolas Cage), who's merely on his way to being a useless old drunk but hasn't quite arrived.
We never learn, by the way, what the women live on here, beyond a few hints: either a gal has to make her own birthday cake, or she has to become a prostitute. Mostly, women are absent, except as a distant, off-screen excuse for one guy to beat up another.
Anyway. Gary convinces Joe to give him a job on his crew, which is using hatchets and machetes and barrels of poison — none too ominous there — to clear a forest of stupid useless trees. "Nobody wants these trees," Joe explains. "These trees are weak." It's very metaphoric. All these violent men, doing the clear-cutting through their world of abject poverty and ignorance from which, it seems, death is the only escape. Can Gary avoid this fate?
Alas that Joe never really made me care. David Gordon Green moves back to his Southern gothic roots — see George Washington and Undertow — with a film that is perhaps more overtly horrific than anything he's made. (This is far removed from the sweet oddball dramedy of his most recent film, Prince Avalanche.) As Gary's vicious father, Poulter is terrifying, and his performance is remarkable, particularly for a non-actor — he was living on the streets of Austin when Green cast him, and has since died on those same streets. But it's a senseless sort of terror: Wade's an all too realistic monster who commits unspeakable but all too mundane crimes, the worst of which we, the film's audience, are the only ones who see. If that's meant to make us appreciate that Gary really, really does need to escape his home situation … well, we already had no doubt about that. The gruesome presentation of Wade's violent excesses seems salacious. Sheridan, as Gary, is also quite good — though he played a comparable role in last year's similarly themed Mud.
The other inevitable comparison to Mud is that this represents — as that film did for Matthew McConaughey — a return to actual actorly form for Cage. Here, he finally gets away from the shout-y, cartoony madmen he's been blustering through onscreen for far too long; he hasn't been this compelling since his magnificent one-two punch in 2005 with The Weather Man and Lord of War. But the totality of the movie is nowhere near as rewarding as simply seeing Cage back on the job. It's hard to shake the sense that Joe was constructed around him as a showcase, because little else about it satisfies. o