Ex-con Joe (Cage) finds a new reason to stay on the straight and narrow when he becomes a reluctant father figure to troubled 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan), whose father (Poulter) is a violent alcoholic.
It’s rare that a director and their literary source is as well matched – Robert Altman and Raymond Carver’s Short Cuts comes to mind – as in the latest film from David Gordon Green, which finds him returning to his Southern gothic roots as he tackles the late Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, in which the eponymous ex-con does his best to rescue a 15-year-old boy from a life of vagrancy and physical abuse at the hands of his father. When the film in question also boasts a return to form by Nicolas Cage, it’s almost obligatory to sit up and take notice. Cage has, of late, been filling out his prolific resumé with films ranging from the outlandish (the Ghost Rider films, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans) to the out-and-out rubbish (everything since the underrated The Weather Man), but Joe finds him reigning in his customary tics and outbursts, arguably giving his most understated performance since his two-second appearance in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and his best since he won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
Since getting out of jail, Joe has been trying his darnedest to make an honest living, running a crew of unskilled workmen whose job it is to poison old trees to make way for new saplings – a metaphor, perhaps, for the poisonous substances that have blighted the lives of so many in the hardscrabble South. Perhaps, in Gary (Mud’s Sheridan), Joe sees a younger version of himself, and determines to take care of the boy as he would a stray dog. “Folks looking for trouble tend to get more than they ask for,” scarred barfly Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) observes early on, but Joe isn’t looking for trouble, and damned if it doesn’t find him anyway.
The last time a filmmaker tried to tackle Larry Brown’s particular brand of Southern-fried prose (Arliss Howard’s Big Bad Love), the only good thing to come out of it was Tom Waits’ soundtrack. Green and Brown, however, prove as well matched as their colourful names suggest: the performances (many from non-pros) are uniformly terrific, the story is slight yet compelling, the mood mournful but not miserablist, Tim Orr’s sun-dappled cinematography recalls Badlands-era Malick, and the entire tapestry is knitted together by Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo’s music; the only disappointment is the sidetracking of the book’s female characters. Whether or not you’re a fan of Brown’s writing, Green makes a convincing argument for why you should be.
An understated Nicolas Cage – there’s a phrase you don’t get to write too often – anchors a superbly realised film which, like Joe himself, has a hard outer shell concealing a surprisingly warm heart. ★★★★