Published Sep 25, 2013In both his comedic and dramatic works, prolific director David Gordon Green has demonstrated a preoccupation with the idea of manhood as a performative, limiting, almost unsustainable act that his characters struggle to adapt to or understand. Whether merely avoiding the restrictive responsibilities implicit in masculine maturation — something evident in his comedies, where man-children reluctantly reject a heteronormative status quo in favour of irreverent youthful indulgence — or contemplating the idea of acquiescing to social constraints in a fractured, violent American landscape in his dramas, adulthood is perpetually a crossroads.
With Joe (his bleak vision of screenwriter Gary Hawkins' adaptation of the acclaimed Larry Brown novel), the fragility of social order and the presentation of manhood as thinly repressed rage are under scrutiny. The titular Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-con managing a team of Mississippi lumber workers clearing land by poisoning unprofitable trees, spends most of his time in a haze of drinking, working, enjoying the company of whores and occasionally winding up in an altercation with a power-hungry police officer or a mouthy bar patron. He's an unenviable representation of economic sustainment amidst a poverty-stricken Mississippi landscape, doing his best to keep his anger at bay, knowing that all rage exerted outwards comes back twofold.
This is why, when we meet him early on, he's on the receiving end of a drive-by shooting, having slapped a local man with a scarred face (Ronnie Gene Blevins) at a bar for being a dick. This same man incidentally runs into 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) while throwing his gun into a river. Gary, the son of an itinerant worker (Gary Poulter) living the tail-end of a pugnacious alcoholic life — stealing and killing to sustain his addiction while kicking the crap out of his wife and kids if they question him — is candid and honest with this man, but is forced into a physical act of domination when reason won't quell his surly, antagonistic disposition.
Since Gary, wanting to earn enough money to buy a pick-up truck and get some food for his mother and sister, is working for Joe, this action sets into motion a series of escalating conflicts that position Joe at a fork in the road of either tragedy or redemption.
Joe, as a character, is inherently paradoxical and simplistic simultaneously. He likes honesty and integrity, protecting those that demonstrate these characteristics. Whether letting a friend's daughter shack up with him or giving Gary incentives to get his life on a better track, he does good things amidst his drunken stupors and run-ins with local police officers trying to wave around a little arbitrary power. He knows that an act of violence will put him back in prison, which is equated here to the tenuous survival of his dog — always chained up and terrorizing anyone that dares step foot on his property — but he flirts with it constantly, having the instinct to dominate other men and assert his (typically beneficial) moral values.
Amidst the gritty depictions of violence and profane living conditions (we get a candid, harsh look at Gary's dilapidated home and submissive relationship with his relentlessly selfish, mean-spirited father), there's a slight glimmer of hope when Joe takes Gary along for a ride to shop for a new truck. The pair have an unlikely bond that, despite being surrounded by human squalor and misery, which culminates in a devastating, galvanizing scene, with Gary's father doing everything necessary to get a bottle of cheap wine from a homeless man, is mutually beneficial and even, at times, comic in its candidness and occasional impropriety.
This connection does ultimately heighten the sense of pervading dread looming over this fatalistic Southern drama, giving us that idea that the brittle bonds holding together this depiction of machismo as a tenacious, gnawing act of oppression won't break. What's heartbreaking and what makes David Gordon Green's slow-building yet unsentimental and uncompromising, almost metaphorically apocalyptic film his most comprehensively layered work yet is that we know exactly how it will all end, but keep hoping for the best anyways. (Lions Gate)