Nicolas Cage is impressive as Joe, a bearded, tattooed, chain-smoking ex-con who works with his team of labourers in rural Mississippi. He’s hard drinking but also hard-working, wielding an axe and injecting poison to clear the woods of weaker trees. We know how tough he is when we see him skin a deer, tame a deadly snake, and cut a bullet from his own flesh. He lives in a world on the margins of US society, dirt poor and inhabited by stupefied alcoholics, violent losers and vicious dogs. In this macho environment the women feature only as cowering and submissive, or prostitutes resigned to brutality.
But Joe is tormented by the brutality around him, and struggles with the violence he feels inside himself when faced with the humiliations of his world. He treats his team of workers well, and he cares for his women friends, but his true nature is revealed when he meets young Gary who is looking for work. Abused by his monstrous father, Joe takes Gary under his wing and we see a sensitive and gentle side to his character. It’s his compassion for Gary and his vulnerable sister that drives Joe to risk everything.
The film has some outstanding performances. Cage gives a powerful character study as Joe, conveying his inner turmoil and his compassion, and Tye Sheridan movingly plays a defiant Gary who struggles against the odds to protect his family. The non-actors, like the gang of labourers also shine, but the real star is Gary Poultner who is absolutely compelling as the abusive father. A real life drifter and alcoholic, he sadly drowned in a ditch a few months after filming. It’s a bleak film, but also a gripping one.
“Nicholas Cage delivers an excellent, tightly wound performance.”