“Joe” is an old-school, old-fashioned kind of movie. There’s no slick CGI fantasy sci-fi stuff. No chase scenes. No shoot-‘em-ups that look like video games of bloodless bad guys dropping everywhere. No romance. No sweet smell of success, either. Just a bunch of down-home country folks stubbornly but proudly being the genuine folks that they are. And though their motivations are not always for the betterment of humankind, sometimes they transcend themselves and accidentally stumble on the pure right thing to do.
Joe (Nicolas Cage) is the straw boss of a hard-working bunch of backwoods roughnecks who are surreptitiously injecting poison into trees. That’s right, apparently the lumber company can only “harvest” trees that are already dead, and this under-the-radar crew is paid, in cash, to go make some deadwood out there. Yes, it’s ironic work for them, since they are sort of the deadwood of that particularly remote neck of the woods. Joe lives in a ramshackle house that he doesn’t bother to clean or tidy up----nor is he trying to impress anyone. He nips on the flask while he’s driving his old beat-up pickup truck. He occasionally frequents the local brothel, but he doesn’t seem to have any more enthusiasm for it than they do. It’s almost obligatory for them all. He seems to have an estranged ex-wife somewhere, because somebody mentioned that he’s now a grandfather, but he doesn’t seem to know anything about that, or care, either. He’s friendly with most folks in this small town, and they all act like they’ve known each other for some time. He smokes too much, and admits it, but can’t seem to do anything constructive about that, either. We see him snacking on apples, but eating meals doesn’t seem to be a big priority, either. In fact, when Connie (Adriene Mishler), the local “Madam,” asks to move in with him for a while, he readily agrees, and though she once wistfully says that she’d love for them to just get dressed up and go out to eat together, just once, he pretends he doesn’t hear. He’s not a bad guy, really. But he does have a temper, he drinks too much, he can’t seem to sustain any close relationships, and there are certain things that really set him off: like cops being too full of themselves.
We find out later that Joe’s done some time for assault on a police officer. The way he tells it, he was unfairly stopped, and then harassed without provocation. He’s explaining this to “the kid,” Gary (Tye Sheridan), who’s only 15, but works with Joe’s roughneck de-forestation crew, because, well, he doesn’t have many options. It seems his Daddy, Wade (Gary Poulter, an unknown who tragically died before the film’s release), is a mean drunk who beats him and his Mom. Wade is mean-spirited and violent and selfish and brutish, and can’t hold down a job. Worse still, he tries to arrange to pimp out his own daughter, who’s already so traumatized she doesn’t speak. Gary tests his fragile new mentor relationship with his boss, Joe, by involving him in the whole sordid family mess. Joe is a most unlikely role model for anyone. But he’s the best hope the poor kid has, and he’s perceptive enough for that to weigh on him.
Doesn’t sound like it’s headed for a good ending, does it? But “Joe” packs a powerful emotional wallop because it just feels so real and genuine. It sets a stark, raw, poignant mood that compels the viewer to feel for these colorful characters. It’s a surprisingly impactful film; one that, like its tragic main character, is not easily dismissed.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas