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  • Baltimore City Paper

Gary is torn between his father and the film's titular character, Joe

Joe

Directed by David Gordon Green

Now playing

Gary, a teenage boy

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(excellently played by Tye Sheridan), is caught at the threshold of manhood. His father, the vile and evil alcoholic Wade (Gary Poulter, an actual homeless man who sadly died just months after this film wrapped), abuses him mercilessly, but Gary sticks around to protect his mother and his sister. He doesn't fight back-though an encounter with a scar-faced man whom he beats down on a bridge shows the normally sweet and determined kid could destroy his scrawny old man if he chose to.

Gary is torn between his father and the film's titular character, Joe (Nicolas Cage), a lovable and somewhat heroic fuck-up who is trying to hold himself in line and stay out of jail. Joe works as a foreman in a strange industry that involves chopping trees with axes that squirt a toxic chemical to make them die, all so a timber company can clear the land and plant new ones. It's hard, dirty work that is vividly rendered in the film. In this setting, Gary stumbles upon Joe and his otherwise all-black crew; younger and less hardened than any of them, Gary is a boy among men. Unlike his father, though, Gary can work and he earns the respect of the men, especially Joe.

The film's main metaphor becomes clear quickly: Joe resembles the trees that receive the poisoned cuts, and Gary, the new trees that will be replanted in the same soil, the same dirt, the same environment of the doomed trees. Joe reluctantly comes to look out for the boy because he sees something that he once had before the alcohol, violence, and prison changed him.

Joe

is about poor men and their desire to work and fight. Gary personifies a more youthful and perhaps hopeful version of the roughneck with a heart of gold. Unlike his father, he is capable and wants to work, but he's trapped by the requirement to save his mother and sister-both of whom appear as mere apparitions, often out of focus and in the background, forming part of the film's narrative tension but lacking a story in their own right. In

Joe

, men are defined by what they cannot truly control, whether it is work, women, or their own anger.

The story of masculinity and all of its heavy burdens is a beautifully told but predictable one:

Joe

gives us a good ride in an old pickup truck with an unending supply of beer. Director David Gordon Green-whose last movie,

Prince Avalanche

, found Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch knocking about in scorched Texas forests-had

Joe

adapted from the Larry Brown novel of the same name. Brown's so-called "grit lit" fiction evokes the rough world of people who work hard or not at all and who are tragic but tenacious, and often drunk. Brown's characters live in circumstances that are so embedded, or stuck, in a place that any attempt to escape is futile. His later and lesser-known book

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Fay

, which follows Gary's sister, who runs away from the dysfunctional family early in the novel, would be a bold cinematic counterpoint if Gordon Green could depict the lives of women with the same force.

Still,

Joe

shows that the sometimes brilliant but often miscast Nicolas Cage can still act-more

Leaving Las Vegas

than mullet-wearing action hero-and that Gordon Green can still tell a stark Southern tale that transcends region, more like

George Washington

than

Pineapple Express

.

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