Joe begins with violence; a man strikes his son, and shortly afterwards is beaten himself by unseen assailants. Violence begetting violence in a world defined by masculinity. Joe tells us of the struggle to be a man for fifteen year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) and Joe (Nicolas Cage) alike, the latter taking a shine to the former after hiring him. The narrative sounds familiar, but it’s thankfully the least interesting thing about this excellent film.
Joe is elevated by its environment; it’s a small Southern American town defined by decrepitude and decay while surrounded by dense forest, ancient pillars of nature. It has the ring of authenticity, thanks to David Gordon Green’s choice to use non-actors and improvisation. The masculine backbone of the film supports themes of race, poverty and deeper moralistic contemplation without resorting to overemphasis or didacticism.
Mostly, it’s just astoundingly well-made, with Gordon Green’s typical naturalistic, Malickian poetry opening up into dark humour and brutal violence alongside genuine beauty, all tied together with perfect editing and an amazing soundtrack. Cage’s performance is good, but the real revelation is Gary Poulter, the (now deceased) non-actor playing Sheridan’s father, who chillingly embodies the malignant tumour of incoherent, incapable anger at Joe’s heart.