Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, Gary Poulter, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Adriene Mishler, Brian Mays, Aj Wilson McPhaul, Sue Rock, Heather Kafka, Brenda Isaacs Booth, Anna Niemtschk, Elbert Evan Hill III, Milton Fountain, Roderick L. Polk, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells
Written by: Gary Hawkins, based on a novel by Larry Brown
Directed by: David Gordon Green
MPAA Rating: R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content
Running Time: 118
Date: 04/11/2014

Joe (2014)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Poison Woods

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director David Gordon Green has divided his time between broad comedies (Pineapple Express, The Sitter) and thoughtful, lyrical dramas (Snow Angels, Prince Avalanche), but this is the first time he has descended into a world as violent and as hopeless as the one in Joe. Fortunately, Green is as observant as ever, and he not only conjures up a vivid, self-contained universe, but peoples it with fascinating, damaged characters. Yet no matter how lowdown they may appear, Green seems to understand their humanity.

In a grim little Texas town, Joe (Nicolas Cage) runs a grim little operation, using chemical-squirting axes to kill all the trees in the woods so that they can be replaced with stronger ones. He supervises a team of African-American workers, and though the work is hard, they all respect him. Everyone in town knows him, too, and knows they can count on him, despite his violent past and his time in prison.

When young Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes to Joe for a job, Joe sees something worthy in him and agrees. Unfortunately, Gary's mean old drunk father begins causing trouble, and Joe finds himself looking after Gary. But an old enemy of Joe's has come looking for vengeance and Joe must keep himself from resorting to violence.

Young Sheridan (also in The Tree of Life and Mud) gives a strong performance in an emotionally difficult role. But it's Cage, who after two decades' worth of rather terrible movies, proves once again that he's a real actor, capable of pushing himself to dangerous lengths. Gary Poulter, who shows a genuine menace as Gary's nasty, drunken father, was a local homeless man who had never acted and died after the film wrapped.

Lionsgate released a handsome Blu-ray edition; though the movie is gritty and muted, the high-def transfer highlights the filmmakers' choices nicely. There's a generous commentary track with Green, who is a funny guy when teamed up with others, and his composer David Wingo, plus amateur actor Brian D. Mays, whose first movie this was. Extras include a short, studio-produced "making-of" featurette, and a featurette about the writing of the movie, with info about cult author Larry Brown. There are two deleted scenes and a bunch of trailers.

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