Starring Nicolas Cage. Rated 18A.
If Russell Crowe isn’t available for the next biblical epic, filmmakers should be made aware that Nicolas Cage rocks an awesome angry-patriarch beard.
Cage’s thoughtfully scowling mien is one of the strongest aspects of this exercise in southern-gothic sleaze, in which neon gloom and junkyard dogs take the place of narrative thrust and character development. It’s almost enough, if you’re content to bathe in the dank atmosphere provided by director David Gordon Green, who started with small indie stories, such as All the Real Girls, and “graduated” to Hollywood fare like Pineapple Express and Your Highness.
Here, working with Gary Hawkins’s tight-lipped adaptation of a novel by Larry Brown, Green is back in his rural element, which is to say the woods around Austin, Texas. Not that you’d know there are any urban capitals nearby, since this closed world’s few inhabitants don’t seem to know of any options outside of the few mean steps they hypnotically take.
This goes double for Cage’s monosyllabically named antihero, who’s been to jail and now smokes, drinks, and runs a decidedly shady outfit that specializes in poisoning trees—because the logging company isn’t allowed to remove healthy ones! No one in this roughneck crew talks about the morality of what they’re doing—much less recognizes it as a metaphor for America on the wane. This is the most interesting part of the story, showing us human dynamics the movies don’t often depict.
Once 15-year-old Gary shows up, looking for work and a better father figure than his drunken, violent old man (Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died two months after shooting his part), the tale veers steadily into the overly familiar, and stays there. To start with, young Tye Sheridan played almost the same character in the far richer Mud, in which he latches on to the extrovert criminal played by Matthew McConaughey.
This time, the life lessons are much tougher, and less engaging, mainly because the filmmakers have so little interest in actual language. With flat dialogue that often feels improvised, the movie is dominated by long montage sequences, underscored by droningly ominous music, and punctuated by just the kind of shotgun violence you would expect from the knuckle-draggers we’re given. Joe has a very strong mood, but unlike Noah, it has no arc.