If you need a reminder of what a fine, nuanced actor Nicolas Cage can be, take a look at Joe. This is the kind of artful character study that marked Cage’s work in Leaving Las Vegas, Raising Arizona and Adaptation. Cage’s Joe Ransom is an ex-con, living in the rural South, where he runs a tree-poisoning detail for a company that wants to replace sick trees with the healthier variety. Joe is fair to his crew, played by real-life laborers. He even gives a job to Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan), 15, whose boozer daddy, Wade (Gary Poulter), likes to beat the crap out of him. Joe is no saint. His addictions to smokes, drinks and hookers speak to an inner turmoil.
The explosions come, sometimes melodramatically, in the script Gary Hawkins adapted from a 1991 novel by the late Larry Brown. But director David Gordon Green, returning to his indie roots (George Washington, All the Real Girls) after Hollywood flirtations awesome (Pineapple Express) and awful (Your Highness), provides a rich fabric of authenticity to help the actors shine. Sheridan, so good in Mud with Matthew McConaughey, excels here as a vulnerable sapling. And Poulter, a homeless nonactor who was found dead in three feet of water two months after filming, is tremendous as the brutal father. Still, the film belongs to Cage. You can feel his compassion as Joe defies the reduced options of his life. There’s not an unfelt moment in Cage’s performance. Or in the movie.