With his latest film, many commentators are inevitably remarking on the sudden return of non-preposterous Nicolas Cage. And yes, it's true: Cage's work as the title character of American indie-regionalist David Gordon Green's latest film is notable for its subtlety and introversion — no hammy derring-do through catacombs beneath Washington, D.C., no screaming about "the bees!" But it seems every bit as important to observe the return of Green, whose films of the past five years have consisted of misguided genre riffs and stoner comedies. While last year's Prince Avalanche marked a slight return to form, it was frequently undone by its hokey buddy-comedy armature.
But Green has produced one of his very finest films to date, and a showcase for Cage's best actorly instincts. Joe, the character, is a 50-something ex-con who now has what we might generously call a metaphorical job. He is the foreman for a group of paper-company employees who are tasked with poisoning unwanted trees so they can be cut down to make way for new growth. One day he is approached by Gary (rising star Tye Sheridan), a young man desperate for work. We soon discover that Gary's father "G-Daawg" (Gary Poulter) is a violent drunk who abuses his family and resents his son's desire to provide. In time, Joe becomes a surrogate father figure for Gary, but not without substantial cost to all involved.
In its own oblique way, Joe, adapted by Gary Hawkins from the late Larry Brown's novel, is a kind of male-centered American answer to the films of Belgium's Dardenne brothers. Their award-winning Rosetta was about a teenage girl's frantic compulsion to hold down a job, in order to not end up like her slatternly trailer-park mom. Likewise, films such as The Son and The Kid With the Bike tend to focus on individuals who are not only stuck in lower-class circumstances but also so fully formed by their milieu that they are seldom capable of gaining an outside perspective. Like the Dardennes' films, Joe is distinguished by its close attention to cultural and physical landscape (Green's film was shot around Austin by his longtime cinematographer Tim Orr).
But more than this, Joe is the rare American film that foregrounds the labor process. We watch workers whack tree after tree with the poison-infused axes, we hear discussions about money and procedure, and we come to realize just how vital labor is to Gary's identity. It not only allows him to fit in and joke around with the other members of his (mostly African-American) tree crew, who respect his work ethic. It is also the thing he can control, his only mode of rebellion. In a way, Green has exhibited a similar trajectory. By taking a pause from "transgressive" films like Pineapple Express, the director has found his way back to the true, hard work of real life.