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'Joe' review: Ugly behavior in sometimes-pretty scenery

*** (out of four)

At a certain point, the backcountry stories become a blur. Even when they're well executed, and they usually are, movies like "Winter's Bone" and "Mud" and "Out of the Furnace" and now "Joe" all exist in comparable, dangerous worlds. Kids grow up fast and both booze and angry dogs frequently factor into a violent community that spends little time worrying what the law thinks of any sort of behavior.

In its own, rugged landscape, though, each film carves itself into the tree. Speaking of which: The tattooed, bourbon-drinkin' title character of "Joe" (Nicolas Cage) oversees a crew paid to poison trees in Texas, so the lumber company can tear `em down and make way for new developments. Out of nowhere, up walks 15-year-old Gary (Tye Sheridan of "Mud" and "The Tree of Life"), needing work and an oasis from his abusive, alcoholic dad, Wade (effectively scary Gary Poulter, a homeless man who died a few months after shooting). Gary's as determined and reliable as an employer would hope for -- especially as a teenager. The apple falls very far from the tree; when Wade joins the crew, his work ethic is the polar opposite.

Throughout "Joe," David Gordon Green's ("Prince Avalanche") second consecutive low-key return to material that's more like his "George Washington" than "Your Highness," are threats that eventually will need to be neutralized. Wade resorts to violence whenever he needs something, and a local man named Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who's overly proud of surviving a trip through a windshield, wants revenge on Joe. Meanwhile the script, adapted by first-time feature writer Gary Hawkins from Larry Brown's novel, wonders how much Gary can fend for himself and how much Joe, who says things like "What keeps me alive is restraint" and tries to put his past troubles behind him, will put himself on the line for another. The movie doesn't gain a lot from Joe letting a lover (Adriene Mishler) crash with him for safety or his affections for the madam at a local brothel.

What Green always does well in these settings, however, is develop a sense of place and character. A scene in which Wade follows a man he spots with a bottle glitters with beauty and menace. And Green gets the kind of locked-in work we used to see from Cage and a performance everyone should be used to seeing from Sheridan, who simultaneously depicts Gary's age and his ability to act beyond it. "You think I'm a kid?" he shouts as he defends himself against Willie. Eventually everyone has to make that kind of statement, just not necessarily on a forest-covered, isolated bridge.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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