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VENICE - Tye Sheridan seems a nice kid and all, but he sure has terrible taste in father figures. Well, okay, not the real Tye Sheridan – whose dad, I’m sure, is a delight – but the flinty, feral persona he’s honed in two country-fried journeys into manhood this year. First came Jeff Nichols’ “Mud,” in which the steady-gazing teenager attached himself to Matthew McConaughey’s snake-tattooed fugitive Mud, a reverse adoption that ended about as well as it might have done. Now comes David Gordon Green’s “Joe,” in which Sheridan, his face already older and more settled, attaches himself to Nicolas Cage’s skull-tattooed ex-con Joe – a slightly more mutual adoption that, given the boy’s brutal, whiskey-wet home environment, could only be described as the lesser of two evils.
As with the goofy-melancholy antics of “Prince Avalanche,” hailed earlier this year as Green’s redemptive feature after the progressive artistic backslide of his mainstream comedy phase, “Joe” sees the North Carolina graduate returning more to a physical environment than a cinematic one. Grimy and shouty and riddled with broad, substance-scarred stereotypes, this hellish vision of the South – that no state is specified on screen enhances the sense of all unflattering bases being covered, though Larry Brown’s source novel is set in Mississippi – is a realm far, far away from the woozy, Sparklehorse-kissed romanticism of “All the Real Girls,” or even the honest gruel of “Undertow,” however regionally approximate. In career terms, Green is returning from the wilderness by returning to it – but in the time he’s been away, he appears to have developed an outsider’s wary perspective.
Coincidentally or otherwise, the film’s very first shot lures resilient 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) with both the motive and means for escape, as he sits beside his grizzled, alcoholic dad Wade before a railway track that one suspects has ample time for moss to gather between trains. Father and son trade abuse from the off, and not in the jocular, status-asserting way that is common in even the Bradiest of bunches. It’s plain theirs is a violent, loveless bond, and if the performance by first-time actor Gary Poulter as Wade is short on emotional gradation, its unschooled volatility does make him an appropriately stressful presence. (In countenance and clothing, meanwhile, he also looks distractingly like Bruce Dern in Alexander Payne’s upcoming “Nebraska,” but that’s a separate concern.)
A male counterpart of sorts to Jennifer Lawrence’s Ree Dolly in “Winter’s Bone” – if you look closely, Lawrence and Sheridan even have a similar, wide-cheeked mien – Gary is entrusted with caring and providing for his mother and sister over a father whose drowning in an Ozark lake would be, if anything, a benefit to all parties. His sister is mute, and his mother may as well be: I’d hazard a guess that she’s a meth-head, since Gary Hawkins’ script scarcely gives her any room to prove otherwise. (Still, they’re about the only women in the film’s world who aren’t prostitutes, with or without hearts of gold, so this otherwise dire family must be doing something right.)
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