USA (117 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: David Gordon Green
USA (117 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: David Gordon Green
People who are in trouble are the kind I know best. They’re the kind I grew up around.
—Larry Brown, author of the book, Joe, 1991
Well, it’s not Nicolas Cage from WILD AT HEART (1990), but it may as well be the same guy twenty five years later after he’s spent a stretch of time in the penitentiary for assaulting a police officer, who it turns out was actually assaulting him, while also losing his girl and any thought of family, where all he has left is a rundown house that’s been condemned, a bulldog on a short chain, an old beat up truck, the dirt road in front of him, and as much cigarettes and whisky as he can smoke and drink before he dies. Surrounded by lowlifes with limited options in life, Joe (Cage) exists in a backwater town, seemingly on a short string, with a raging temper, where he has to drink himself into a stupor just to keep from going off on all the things that aggravate him. While this is not a David Gordon Green original, as he did not write or even adapt this film, it was adapted instead by Gary Hawkins from the 1991 novel of the same name by Mississippi author Larry Brown, who died in his early 50’s, but wrote about the rural South and the hard-luck people he knew while growing up. His characters tend to be mechanics, whores, or parolees, hardworking people whose brutal lives are made more complicated by alcohol, sex, and violence, often caught up in circumstances that lead to their own self-destruction. A spare portrait of the near destitute, Green’s setting shows people barely eking out an existence in an economically ravaged community, where it has the Southern gothic feel of life teetering on the edge, where the day-to-day will to survive is the existing reality, a movie teeming with disturbing characters and a murky regional atmosphere, reminiscent of Billy Bob Thornton’s SLING BLADE (1996), where Thornton was a friend of the author, but also the rural poverty of William Friedkin’s Killer Joe (2011), Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace (2013), Jeremy Saulnier’s Blue Ruin (2013), and perhaps most especially Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2012), which has a similar figurehead father and son dynamic. With the director living in Austin, this is the second film in a row shot in the rural outback of Texas, following the absurdist musings of Prince Avalanche (2013), where this is a powerful character study with Nicolas Cage as the life force of the film, offering a towering performance as an ex-con who continually has to fight his inner demons, where one can only imagine the kind of trouble he got himself into earlier in his life, as he still has that same hellraising spirit, but he’s a likeable figure who knows everybody in the community, who treats everyone with respect, including the police, who have to reign him in from time to time, but he also has a bottle in his hand in just about every scene.
With a peculiar occupation, Joe manages a tree poisoning business, where the lumber companies are not allowed to remove living trees in areas that need to be cleared for planting new growth, but they can remove dead trees, so his job is to do the preliminary work needed to clear the land, injecting poison into the trunks of targeted trees, using a crew of regulars, including a group of black workers he picks up in his truck at a convenience mart every morning, where the jovial chatter and camaraderie of the workers establishes the rhythm of the film. Into his life walks Gary, Tye Sheridan, the older of the two kids in Mud, also one of the kids in Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), seen here as a troubled 15-year old boy who is physically abused by his alcoholic father, but looking for work to help support his economically deprived family, which includes a sister that never speaks and a mother that cowers to the intimidation of her drunken husband who spends all the money on booze, leaving them with nothing. While young Gary is a hard worker eager to learn, Joe is drawn to him, like a younger version of himself, immediately recognizing signs of abuse, where what money he makes is beaten out of him by his monstrous father, often seen wandering aimlessly through the streets as G-Daawg, played by Gary Poulter, who is the real deal, in real life a homeless man with a bipolar condition, discovered on the streets of Austin by the film crew, where Green has a habit of hiring locals for his films. But he’s not an extra, but one of the featured roles, where Poulter couldn’t be more convincing for the part, literally inhabiting the role, an outsider who is ostracized from his own family and community, which only aggravates his desperate need to drink, making him meaner and more sinister, becoming the darkest and most depraved force in the film. But he’s matched by another undesirable, Ronnie Gene Blevins as Willie-Russell, a slightly unhinged character that goes ballistics upon hearing insults to his character, a man with a vicious scar on his face, and an axe to grind with Joe, who apparently insulted him at a bar and humiliated him, leaving him little choice but to seek revenge. The film, by the way, is dedicated to Poulter, as a few months after shooting was finished, he was found face down in a shallow pool of water in Austin, where his death was ruled to be accidental drowning, with “acute ethanol intoxication.” This fate only accentuates his devastating presence in the film.
Despite a multitude of secondary characters, the bulk of the film follows Gary’s fascinated attraction to Joe, turning up on his doorstep at all hours of the night, even in the pouring rain, seeking advice for his spiraling out-of-control life, where Joe’s about the only adult person who will talk to him. There’s a calmness and a decency about Joe around the kid, taking an interest, often showing him how to do things, becoming a father figure even as his own turbulent life is in constant disarray. With the amount of alcohol he consumes, it’s a wonder that he can even stand through a good part of this film, where some viewers may feel a bit of stereotypical overkill with dilapidated shacks, roadside brothels, dysfunctional families, mute children, killer dogs, and a constant dose of violence and alcohol, as if the film is literally wallowing in its own misery, while Gary’s youth is a constant presence of innocence and the hope that his future can be different. There’s a sagging morass of dubious moral character attached to Joe, where his unsavory past is never far from the present, as his drunkenness and hair-trigger temper are not a good combination. When he claims, “What keeps me alive is restraint,” one has to think that’s an attribute he barely recognizes or comprehends. When the chief of police Earl (Aj Wilson McPhaul) pays him a visit, he’s the one that actually shows courtesy and restraint, where they were both hellraisers in their youth, but Earl’s outgrown that and become a wiser and more responsible man, while Joe still remains a drunken carouser hellbent on anger and destruction. The interest in the kid brings out an entirely different side of him, where he wants to be stable and protective even as his own life slides into utter chaos. Gritty, darkly humorous, with turns of extreme violence, this is easily Green’s darkest film, where Cage, in perhaps his best work since ADAPTATION (2002), fights through his own rugged frontier individualism and perfectly navigates his way through the turbulent waters of a depressed community, where he never for a moment finds peace, but he may, through this kid, find purpose. The uncompromising indie style harkens back to Green’s earliest and still his best work, using his lifelong cinematographer Tim Orr, whose visual poetry is an essential part of the film, along with an ominous electronic score from David Wingo and Jeff McIlvain. As in the best character studies, filmmakers have a way of drawing us into the unique world of people whose lives onscreen matter, where the outcome is not just powerfully moving, but heartbreaking.