Grade: B

Directed by David Gordon Green
Starring Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter

I am not a fan of Nicolas Cage. I repeat: I am not a fan of Nicolas Cage. But, I really enjoyed Joe. It's a return to form for the Oscar-winning actor who somehow got confused about his own career after the smash hits Gone in 60 Seconds and National Treasure (both of which were pretty entertaining and tolerable). The past few years have been more Ghost Rider and less Leaving Las Vegas. But, with Joe, Cage returns to the type of character he was born to play: a conflicted everyman who must fight his demons while being an undeserving hero.

Set in the south, Joe plays up the southern gothic genre similar to last year's Mud. Both films co-star Tye Sheridan and feature equally beautiful cinematography. Both play up the unlikely role model formula in that Cage's titular Joe is an ex-con with a hard past who happens upon poor Gary (Sheridan) and his crap of a father, Wade (played by true Austin homeless man/newcomer Gary Poulter). After much prodding, Joe hires Gary and Wade to work only to be met with Wade's alcoholic habits and poor workmanship. When Joe's past catches up to him, he's given opportunities to slip back into a life of ruin or suffer sacrifice leading to redemption. Gary, who chooses to look up to Joe when his own father loses his respect for the last time, ends up caught in the middle only to see true sacrifice for what it's worth.

Joe doesn't quite live up to the seedy epicness that last year's Mud was able to achieve, but it does offer a new canvas for a smalltown story we haven't seen before. What makes Joe work are the impeccable performances by the entire cast, mostly made of unknowns. Cage, as stated before, does his best work in years, fully committing to the hardships Joe faces and, thankfully, never gives in to his cheesy "serious face" work of recent films. Sheridan, just as in his work in Mud and The Tree of Life, proves he has an ability beyond his years. If he stays the course, he could be the next DiCaprio or Pitt. He has the looks and the talent. Poulter is a legend of a find for director David Gordon Green. Sadly, Poulter dealt with a real alcoholic struggle and was found facedown in water just before the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. His performance will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the great one hit wonders of film. The most incredible piece of the film is the struggle between father and son and how that relationship ties most of the film along. This wouldn't have worked without Sheridan and Poulter's seamless chemistry throughout the film. It is truly heartbreaking.

The southern backdrop plays a vital role in the film, but even more important are the dark, damp, and dirty locations Joe finds himself. The neon red lights in one druggy house he enters almost feel like a stage set and that's a compliment. Green definitely had a clear vision for the project and it never falters.

Joe isn't a perfect film and won't quite live up to the heights of similar films, but it's a refreshing, thought-provoking piece of work that is worth your time in the current mix of releases. It's also worth supporting Cage in any role that allows him to really show why he's supposed to be one of Hollywood's great artists, a title he hasn't earned in decades.

Rating: R
Runtime: 118 minutes

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