Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 7; Language 4; Sex 6/Nudity 2.
Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Note: There could be a spoiler in the last two paragraphs.
So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23 but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.
Speak out for those who cannot speak,
for the rights of all the destitute.
Speak out, judge righteously,
defend the rights of the poor and needy.
Director David Gordon Green’s Southern Gothic film unreels as a tale of grace in unexpected places, one that Flannery O’Connor might have written. (At times I thought of the equally surprising Pulp Fiction.) As written by Gary Hawkins, based on a novel by Larry Brown, the scripted character seems tailor-made for Cage’s hangdog looks that he is noted for. However, an especially brutal murder scene and a fleeting sexual tryst, neither involving Joe, make this a problematic film for some viewers.
Joe heads a crew of black laborers working on a wooded track in Texas where their job is to poison the trees unwanted by the lumber company. The plan is to get rid of the useless trees so that pines that produce quality lumber can be planted. Director Green is good at revealing little details of the work crew, showing their camaraderie, even with their white boss who seems free of any racial prejudice. He spends his evenings drinking coke and whiskey, sometimes at a bar, more often at his run-down house. He keeps a brown and white pit bull outside on a short chain as a deterrent against unwelcome visitors.
Joe also tries to keep a short leash on his too easily aroused temper. Recently it had led to his slapping boisterous tavern drinker Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins), and the vengeful man had returned to shoot some buckshot into Joe’s shoulder. (He later says that he had meant to shoot over his head.) In the more distant past Joe had been sent to prison when he disarmed a policeman who was threatening to kill him during an arrest attempt.
Joe is thus a very conflicted man, a very unlikely role model or defender of “the rights of the poor and needy.” When 15 year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan) comes seeking a job, Joe surmises from the boy’s brief verbal work resume that he is a hard worker, and so hires him on. The African Americans readily accept the eager lad, several showing him how to load his back-pack tank with poison and how to slam the ax head into a tree several times to dispense the deadly liquid. Gary does this ably, as well as learning to cut brush away, and serve in the more menial task of distributing water jugs to the workers.
Before long Joe finds himself drawn to the boy, especially on the following Monday when Gary shows up with his father Wade (Gary Poulter), who turns out to be just the opposite of his son, lazy, argumentative, a vile force of disruption. Joe tells Wade not to come back but keeps the son, and later, when dropping him off in his old truck, observes the drunken old man abusing him. The grizzled Wade could have been a member of William Faulkner’s Snopes family, so devious, twisted, and brutal is he. He shakes down his son for his money, even becoming angry when the boy spends most of it on groceries, thus leaving less cash for him to seize and spend on booze. He apparently has abused not only his wife, but also Gary’s sister Dorothy (Anna Niemtschk), because the latter has not been able to speak a word in years. The part of Dorothy is very underwritten, but she will become pivotal to a plot development later on.
Joe is a familiar customer at the local general store and the whorehouse, and yet a young woman named Connie (Adriene Mishler) is drawn to him. When she needs shelter from a difficult relationship, Joe takes her in, where they sit many a night watching mindless TV while she longs for an occasional night out. At one point she serves as Joe’s Jiminy Cricket, pointedly asking him, when he tells her that he had seen Wade abuse Gary, what he had done about it. Joe is also well known to local sheriff Earl (Aj Wilson McPhaul), surprisingly a black man overseeing a group of white deputies. Earl, a friend back in the days when both were hard drinking hell raisers, tries to protect Joe, both from his deputies who have it in for him and from Joe’s own propensity for getting into trouble.
A feeling of foreboding, ably aided by the music and the scattered incidents of violence (the latter especially during the scene in which Wade brutally beats a homeless black man to death to gain his bottle of liquor), hangs over the picture, the climactic scene of redemptive violence reminding me a little of the way in which Gran Torino had ended. Joe is one more dark character to add to a list of unlikely bearers of grace (such as Walt Kowalski of the above picture). Far too conflicted to be a Christ Figure, Joe is nonetheless an agent of grace whose life definitely makes a difference in Gary’s life.
At this point I should also add that young actor Tye Sheridan played a somewhat similar role in Mud, where he also was influenced by an unlikely mentor. This is a young man to watch in the years ahead. Let’s hope he makes better film choices than Nicolas Cage has—indeed, let’s hope that Cage will himself exercise better judgment in the years remaining for his career!
After the film’s Good Friday climax there is a sort of Easter postlude when we see Gary apply successfully for a new job, the boss hiring him on the basis that the boy had worked for Joe. “He was a good man,” the man comments. To see what I hope was an intended hint of Easter, compare the task of the new job to that of Gary’s first one. Joe and his crew are not the kind of folk found in most of our churches, but they are very much like those with whom Jesus was accused of hanging out. The actors playing the crewmembers are all excellent in portraying an innate kindness and joy of living, contributing to making this one of the most rewarding films that I have seen this year.
Addendum: Gary Poulter virtually lived the life of the character he portrayed, Wade, father of Gary. The alcoholic-drug addicted man died shortly after the film was finished. For a sad but interesting article on his life and death go to: http://www.austinchronicle.com/screens/2014-04-11/his-name-was-gary-poulter/