Joe is not the first book by the late Mississippi writer Larry Brown to be adapted into a film — that distinction goes to Arliss Howard's 2001 Big Bad Love. But Joe may be the film Brown's devoted fans have been awaiting. It comes by its Southern Gothic bona fides honestly: Director (and Southerner) David Gordon Green cut his teeth working on a documentary directed by his mentor, Gary Hawkins, called The Rough South of Larry Brown. (Jeff Nichols, who directed last year's Mud, also worked on the documentary). Hawkins wrote the screenplay Green used to make Joe. The result is a film that's faithful to the gritty, dark and violent world of Brown's novel and benefits from a major comeback performance by Nicolas Cage in the title role.
Joe gets darker — literally and figuratively — as it moves along. It's the kind of film where blows and bullets arrive unexpectedly and danger always hangs in the air. Joe, who runs a crew that poisons trees for a lumber company, struggles to make sense of the chaos and squalor in his small Southern town. His life changes when 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan, who also starred in Mud) and his abusive alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter) join his crew, and Joe finds purpose in helping the teenager survive his surroundings. Sheridan keeps up admirably with Cage, but it's the scene-stealing performance by Poulter — a real-life homeless man found on the streets of Austin, Texas, who died shortly after filming Joe — that may help render the film a cult classic. Poulter's monstrous Wade is not easy to take. But the character shows that in Larry Brown's world, as in life, redemption is not always possible.