Most significantly, Green draws tremendous performances from a cast of largely unknowns. The title character is, however, played by someone quite well known: Nicolas Cage. In recent years, Cage seems hell bent on tarnishing his once golden reputation by taking just about anything that comes down the pike. Even with an untamed beard, he looks a little too much like a movie star to completely blend in with the rest of this cast. But he digs deep to find the soul of ne’er do well Joe Ransom, a man who makes his living by overseeing a group of men tasked with poisoning unwanted (but otherwise healthy) trees in order for more desirable stock to be planted. When a 15-year-old boy named Gary (Tye Sheridan) begs for a job, Joe adds him to the crew and the two develop a strong father/son-type bond.
Gary definitely needs a role model, considering he lives with his abusive, alcoholic father Wade (Gary Poulter). His mom is a non-entity and his sister has mysteriously become a basket case. Wade, a former breakdancer whose most graceful days are obviously long behind him, belittles Gary at every opportunity. He’s also an embarrassment when he tries joining Joe’s crew, almost costing Gary his job—the boy is deemed a liability by association. But Joe recognizes Gary’s inherent intelligence and fierce work ethic, keeping him on despite his desire to rid himself of Gary’s presence.
The meandering plot of Joe is less about forward momentum and more about sustaining the backwoods, alcohol-infused atmosphere. Unfortunately there are a few tangential threads that could’ve used some serious sharpening. Joe is relentlessly pursued by a tough guy who’s all bluff, Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), who eventually sets his sights on Gary as well. His place in this environment is never fully established; he feels more like a plot mechanism than a character. While Poulter is convincingly wasted as the menacing father Wade (the actor, struggling with alcoholism in real life, unfortunately passed away before he could receive his much-deserved accolades for this performance), the actresses playing his wife and daughter are given nothing to do. Tye Sheridan (who previously turned heads in 2012’s Mud) more than holds his own with Cage.
Lionsgate’s Joe Blu-ray is technically superb. The cinematography of frequent David Gordon Green collaborator Tim Orr is flawlessly presented. Detail is strong, even in the often-dark, nighttime settings. The only fault of the generally well-balanced DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is dialogue that, when mumbled by the cast, occasionally gets a bit overpowered by environmental sound effects. It’s not really a serious problem, but a few passages require a bit closer attention to make out what’s being said (particularly during an early scene where footfalls on hardwood floors are more prioritized than speech). Surround and LFE activity is somewhat limited, but appropriately so given the modest scope of the film.
Special features include an audio commentary with director Green, composer David Wingo, and cast member Brian Mays. There’s a promotional “making of” that runs about ten minutes and a somewhat deeper examination in the featurette “The Long Gravel Road: The Origins of Joe.” A couple deleted scenes turn up as well. The Blu-ray package includes an UltraViolet digital copy.
Thanks to some exceptional performances, Joe manages to transcend some of its more ponderous elements. There really isn’t enough story here to justify a two-hour running time, and a too-pat third act dulls some of Joe’s early promise. Still, it’s easily worth watching if only for the amazing acting trifecta of Nicolas Cage, Tye Sheridan, and Gary Poulter.