Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage) is a rough-edged ex-con who can't stay away from drinking, gambling or easy women. He meets a 15-year-old boy Gary (Tye Sheridan) who is looking to escape his life, especially his tyrannical father. Joe takes a shine to Gary and through trying to help him, Joe finds out that he has a protective streak, he never knew existed.

Cage's credibility makes a comeback of sorts.

It is challenging to pick with whom to be most impressed when assessing the low-key yet firm dramatic triumph that is Joe. On one hand, director David Gordon Green, working from Gary Hawkins’ adaption of the late Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, exhibits a firmly committed return to his interest in rural stories (George Washington, Undertow, Snow Angels) after his frustrating and profoundly weird dalliance with big-budget comedy (Pineapple Express, Your Highness, The Sitter). On the other hand, Nicolas Cage, so long the butt of jokes for his over-the-top leading men—prompted in part by an apparently extravagantly lavish lifestyle which logically demands sustainability—gives easily his most focused, deep and best performance of the 27 films in which he’s starred in the 11 years since Ridley Scott’s Matchstick Men.

The two here complement each other perfectly. Cage plays the eponymous small-town fixture, a brooding hard worker who coordinates a group of men who poison trees for a local lumber company but who is also his own worst enemy by way of drink, brothel visits and the like. When young Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) shows up asking for work, Joe is at first skeptical, but is soon won over the boy’s no-nonsense approach to the job and fierce work ethic. As the two develop a cautious friendship, Cage slowly learns of the abuse meted out to Gary, his mother and sister by their grizzled father Wade (the late Gary Poulter, whom Green discovered homeless on the streets of Austin and apparently didn’t live long enough to see the finished film). Joe is reluctant to get involved but soon sees it as the only way. It is a fateful decision that comes with a high cost.

The closest Cage comes to the gonzo sensibilities for which he’s known is handling a venomous snake, a stunt he apparently insisted on performing himself. Yet it is fine and intensely sculpted performance, matched in commitment by Sheridan’s bravery in the face of abuse and Poulter’s no-holds-barred portrayal of evil incarnate.

In truth, Joe is strongly reminiscent of the work of Jeff Nichols, who was two years behind Green and classmate Danny McBride (for whom Green has subsequently directed episodes of his cable series Eastbound & Down) at the tiny North Carolina School of the Arts when Green shot his debut feature George Washington (2000).

Nichols’ extraordinary debut, Shotgun Stories (2007), which Green produced, is a spiritual offshoot of George Washington, whilst Joe—not to mention Green’s previous feature, Prince Avalanche (2013)—feels connected in tone and rural sensibility to Nichols’ Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012). The two men apparently speak regularly, with Nichols revealing in an interview he asks Green such pertinent industry questions as “How is it to work with Teamsters?”.

As a final tangential aside, the Sydney Film Festival debut of Joe occurs under the banner of the generically labeled Features strand of the program, with the American competition slot going to Richard Linklater’s well-received Boyhood. This is reminiscent of the situation in 2007, when the Berlin International Film Festival selected an American independent film vastly inferior to Shotgun Stories for the international competition and consigned the drama to the prestigious yet less high-profile Panorama section. Much of this year’s SFF competition line-up has yet to be seen, but it is a pity room couldn’t have been made for both.

In the meantime, Joe is one of the strongest films of the year thus far, and proves there’s life still in pungent American stories, the indie cred of David Gordon Green and, perhaps most encouraging, the career of Nicolas Cage.

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