David Gordon Green's Joe is a miserably perfect portrait of a culture on the brink of collapse. Our setting is rural Texas, that stretch where there's nothing but scrub brush and wasted space. The resources that matter -- money and respect -- are so scarce that men fight each other for a larger share. (Women, at least, are plentiful. This hard land has ground down their hope, making them desperate and cheap.)
Lots of movies have characters like Joe (Nicolas Cage), guys with a shady past and a skewed moral code. Cage has played several himself. A more conventional actor would make him a hardass who never lets down his guard. Cage makes him compelling, and the film is a reminder that Cage is one of his generation's great talents. Perhaps he's reminding himself.
Here, Cage feels rooted to the ground. His pecs are bigger, his footfalls feel heavier, his smile, rare as it is, feels real. He delivers great lines without leaning on a lunatic leer, which means when Joe does do crazy things, like grab a cottonmouth snake, try to outrun a cop, or make an angry five-minute pit stop at a whorehouse, we're genuinely unnerved.
Green found his supporting cast on the street, a stunt justified by the fact that they can actually act. The wild-haired Gary Poulter, making a phenomenal debut as an abusive drifter dad, was a homeless man Green's casting director discovered at an Austin bus stop, and he's fantastic. If only Poulter lived long enough to hear it -- he drowned in a river two months after the film wrapped.