"A troubled teenager eagerly adopts a volatile ex-con as his father figure."
Ex-con Joe (Cage) seems to have his life together, running a crew whose specialty involves poisoning trees in order for landowners to legally cut them down. He's respected by all in his town, all that is but the local police force, whocontinually harasses him day in and day out , thanks to an incident that saw him single-handedly beat up three of their finest members, and scar-faced Willie Russell (Blevins), intent on exacting revenge on Joe for a humiliating public beatdown he received at his hands. Complicating things further is the arrival of 15-year-old boy named Gary (Sheridan) and his violent alcoholic father Wade (Poulter). The former eagerly adopts Joe as a father figure, while the latter quickly makes an enemy of him.
Joe, the volatile ex-con he portrays , is indeed somewhat deranged, but quietly so, at least for two thirds of David Gordon Green's adaptation of Larry Brown's 1991 novel. This is the Cage of Leaving Las Vegas, brilliantly portraying a damaged man with a death wish, rather than the Cage we've seen so often since, miscast as a tough guy in post Don Simpson action flicks like Gone in 60 Seconds, The Rock and Drive Angry, movies as high in concept as they are low of brow. There's a quiet rage brimming in his character here, and until it comes to the boil, Green's movie is a gripping watch.
The gritty source novel dates back two decades, which makes one wonder if it served as the inspiration for Billy Bob Thornton's 1996 Slingblade and Jeff Nicholls' Mud, voted one of last year's outstanding movies, both of which feature a volatile man's attempts to reintegrate into society scuppered by his befriending of a troubled young boy. Of course, all three can trace their lineage to the template set down by George Stevens' 1953 Shane, a movie that still today contains one of cinema's most disturbing moments: the gunning down of an unarmed man by Jack Palance's villain, killing his victim, as Johnny Cash would say, "Just to watch him die", a scene repeated by Robert Altman two decades later in his revisionist western McCabe & Mrs Miller.
The movie's first hour takes its time to reel us into its sweaty rural Texas world, which it does with vividly. You can almost feel the dust in your throat, the cotton in your hair. The western stalwarts are all accounted for: the villain entering town, the hero attempting to turn his back on violence, oh and the hooker with a heart of gold who wants her man to make a new life with her. An unnecessary act of violence by this character is the first sign that the movie is about to derail, and when Cage commits an atrocity that will sicken the most casual animal lovers, the film unashamedly veers onto a new and troublesome path. Ultimately this leads to a nail biting finishes as the story reaches it's climax. Joe is much more than a tale of regret and revenge, it is also a story of love and second chances.