^ scruff, a dog fight, and a kind heart in the backwoods : Nicholas cage and Tye Sheridan in David Gordon Green’s “Joe”

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Like Jude Law’s Dom Hemingway, Nicolas Cage’s Joe is an angry feral mess, not to be tangled with. He’s also a puppy on the inside, should you catch him when he’s sober. That’s the blessing and the curse of “Joe,” a character study in which the character is so all over the road, that each time you think you’re getting to know him, something knee jerk and nonsensical comes out of left field and throws you.

Director David Gordon Green’s been a bit all over the map himself from the small indie gem “George Washington” (2000) to the raucous stoner mayhem in “Pineapple Express” and most recently, “Prince Avalanche.” “Joe” begins on a somber promising note as Gary (Tye Sheridan filling a similar role to the one he did in “Mud”), a youth of poor means, takes up a hatchet on a brush clearing gig for Joe, whose reputation as an explosive ex-con permeates the depressed Texas enclave. Gary’s the only white person amid a lot who look like they know Joe from his days behind bars, but they’re all hard working now and focused.

Joe’s pretty focused too, until he drinks too much. The rub comes in Gary’s alcoholic father (Gary Poulter) who goes by the moniker G-Dawg. He’s both complex and a cartoonish caricature, and perhaps the most alluring and annoying aspect of “Joe.” In one scene he’s so pissed he can’t stand up and in another, he’s bashing in a vagrant’s head. It’s humorous too, to see the motley hillbilly cum scraggly white beard and amoral ethic bust some rap moves, but to what end?

Meanwhile, Joe’s got a hard on for the new rookie on the police force who regularly impedes his drunken sojourns to the local brothel. And when the big German Shepherd won’t let Joe across the foyer of the broken-down bordello, Joe remedies the situation by bringing his own dog (a ripped pit bull bitch) to the fight. It’s one of the film’s grimmer scenes that’s bound to turn viewers stomachs nearly as much as G-Dawg pimping out his mute daughter.

Not much is pretty in the backwoods world that Gordon Green has carved out. It’s a quagmire of shit with Gary shining through as the conflicted innocent, hard working, attuned and full of promise, yet ever on the precipice of being sucked under. The plot, despite some sudden and strange turns, moves in a fairly predictable fashion, as the father-son conflict and Joe’s burgeoning bond with Gary orbit each other with the inevitability of a cataclysmic collision. Cage, Poulter and Sheridan pour alot into their faintly drawn characters, and Gordon Green, while he does take the viewer into a new realm (though anyone who’s seen “Mud” will be feeling deja vu) the journey ends up being more of baroque window shopping excursion than a soul searching revelation.

— Tom Meek / Meek at the Movies

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