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Jeremy Clarke

Directed by David Gordon Green
Cert 15, 117 mins

David Gordon Green makes disposable, commercial Hollywood pictures (Pineapple Express, Your Highness) in order to direct more personal narrative films (All The Real Girls, Prince Avalanche) in between them. Joe is one of the latter. Tye Sheridan (from Tree Of Life and Mud) plays Gary, a basically decent young man handicapped by the presence of his abusive, alcoholic father (the non-professional actor Gary Poulter). In the same woodland area works Joe Ransom (Nic Cage), a sometimes emotionally volatile ex-con running a tree-felling team providing a small number of local black people with employment. Gary impresses Joe with hard work and is accepted into the crew until Gary tries to get his unproductive father to work alongside him; this works out so badly that Joe fires them both. Nevertheless, the older Joe feels a sense of responsibility for the boy and keeps and eye on him. Meanwhile, a run in at a local bar has resulted in a man with a grudge against Joe following him around with a loaded gun.

Fundamentally a film about an older, damaged man who has made a mess of his own life trying to prevent a youngster making similar mistakes, even at great personal cost, this isn't a film that (as Hollywood often does) insults the audience's intelligence by tying everything up neatly and smoothing off any rough edges. As in life, characters struggle with their inner demons and personal contradictions. Joe is equally capable of being a good boss and bringing his own dog to the local whorehouse to fatally maul the dog there which attacks him every time he visits. His friend the sheriff gives Joe much advice, but fears that at the end of the day it won't be very much help. And when a junior officer, who tries to lord it over locals he considers beneath him, has a run in with Joe, the sheriff's fears look like being confirmed.

Working from an extraordinary script adaptation of Larry Brown's novel by Green's former college tutor Gary Hawkins, the director populates his film with unforgettable characters like the old man Gary's father unexpectedly befriends then murders for the sake of his bottle of drink. Like the aforementioned Poulter, who delivers the standout performance here among some very high calibre acting work - including unforgettable turns by the seasoned Cage and comparative newcomer Sheridan - many of the cast are drawn from local non-actors; Green possesses a real knack for casting such people and it pays him dividends on screen. Although the narrative is far from linear and veers all over the place, there's never any sense of it being undisciplined or out of control: the story feels in safe hands as Green, his regular cinematographer Tim Orr and and their exemplary cast and crew traverse some really difficult subject matter without seemingly ever putting a foot wrong. This is just as well because the human condition is often complex and difficult to compartmentalise.

This is a real slow burner of a film which really gets under your skin. Like the (genuine, non special effects) poisonous copperhead snake which Cage expertly picks up and handles in an early scene, there's nothing fake about the layered social interactions portrayed here; Joe is an all too rare, warts and all, character-based drama which should be cherished.