Cage has built a reputation for being in silly movies that earn him the constant mockery of the Internet, but Joe is a reminder that audiences can never write him off completely. As Joe, Cage is restrained and quiet but always hints at the character’s criminal nature ready to re-emerge should he break away from the honest life he’s tried to build for himself. There’s no over-acting or material for memes. It’s one of Cage’s best performances, and Sheridan holds his own against the veteran actor. With only two previous movies to his credit (The Tree of Life and Mud), Sheridan has proved himself one of the most remarkable young actors working today. Even though he played another Southern teenage earlier this year in Mud, Sheridan’s work in Joe is distinct and played with far more anger, frustration, and desperation. We understand why Joe sees himself in Gary, and wants to save the teenager from going down the same dark path.
The darkness that permeates Joe isn’t done with great foreboding. It’s provided as a natural extension of a place where people depend on each other, but also put great stock in self-reliance. Joe will pay his workers even if they’re rained out, and he doesn’t mind helping friends learn how to properly cut butterfly steaks from a dead deer. However, when Willie shoots him early in the film, Joe doesn’t go to the hospital or file charges. He digs the buckshot out of his shoulder, and waits until he crosses paths with Willie again. Authority figures exist in this world, but they’re minor functionaries within it.
The trouble with this self-reliance is that the freedom provided fosters a kind of frontier justice when, as one of the characters notes at one point, “there’s no frontier anymore.” Green recreates the “frontier” as closely as possible because he knows our values are trying to invade the roughshod world depicted in the movie. None of the locations are glamorous; there are no rich people. There are only the people we see trying to make their way through hard work, or they’ve just given up entirely and have devoted their lives to ruining the lives of others. Green never forces the issues and themes beyond some symbols like Joe’s dog and the poisoned trees. The most important part is to quietly and respectfully look at the characters, and let their values make us think about our own.
With Joe, Green has created a compelling drama, and he commands our respect of the characters even if those characters question who among them deserves their respect.