Usually, when two very similar films are released in close proximity, they wind up as something of a punchline. Dante's Peak and Volcano. Snow White and the Hunstman and Mirror, Mirror. Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down.
No one will be telling jokes about Mud and Joe, both excellent Southern Gothic flicks centered on the relationship between an adolescent boy and a damaged father figure-type with whom he strikes up a friendship. I can't help wishing there was more distance between the two films, though, if only because comparisons quickly become inevitable and quite unfair.
In Joe, Tye Sheridan, who also stars opposite Matthew McCounaghey in Mud, plays Gary, a drifting kid left to be the breadwinner for his family with his father Wade or G. Daawg (Gary Poulter) a hopelessly abusive alcoholic incapable of anything beyond robbing and hitting his own son.
Despite his dire circumstances -- Gary's younger sister has stopped talking and his entire family is squatting in a condemned house -- Sheridan manages to bring a bright-eyed energy to the film. That energy is the result of his gainful employment deforesting trees with poison for the mysterious titular character, who is played by Nicolas Cage.
Cage's Joe has a quiet edge. He's happy to pay his work crew, which consists entirely of African-Americans and Gary, fair pay for an honest day's work and keep to himself and the local whorehouse. But there are vague Bruce Banner-esque allusions to his pent-up rage, his capacity for extreme violence when he is threatened. Cage, as he is perfectly capable of doing when he so desires, plays this role well. If you're waiting for one of those patented Cage freak-outs -- the type where his eyes bug out and it seems like he's about to have a seizure -- you'll have to look elsewhere. There's a lonely sadness to Joe, explained deep in to the film, that is eroded as he grows closer to Gary, the protegee he was never expecting to have but gradually embraces.
Beyond the superficial parallels, that dynamic, provided by McCounaghey in Mud and Cage in Joe, is what the two films share. Where Joe is different is in its natural realism. McCounaghey's Mud is an almost supernatural force that, for most of his story, is cordoned off on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. He might have a similar effect on the young friends he makes, but he accomplishes it much differently than Joe.
Director David Gordon Green is clearly interested in the dignifying power of manual labor -- even if it takes place in the middle of a dying forest. Both Joe and his previous film, Prince Avalanche, have been set in the relative solitude of the Texas forest. Even as Gary learns the ropes -- a couple squirts of poison then a couple of good swings in to the trunk of an unwitting tree -- from one of his coworkers, there's a rhythmic calm that washes over the screen. Green, the very same guy behind Pineapple Express of all things, sets this tone with sunlight-dappled landscape shots reminiscent of Terrence Malick and the thwack-thud-thwack of bark giving way to poison.
He's also laser-focused on the dynamics of strained male relationships, another thematic thread carried over from his last film. The performances here are more electric than those in Prince Avalanche, starting with Poulter, who was found dead last year and brings a depressing level of authenticity to the abusive drunk he plays in Joe. Long before his character makes a series of truly reprehensible decisions -- the kind even worse than the serial abuse of his son -- he brings real menace to the film.
So too does Cage, it should be pointed out. He is only a saintly father figure to Gary in comparison to Gary's actual father, a hopeless, awful man in the final stages of a ravaging disease. His drinking and whoring is quaint, relatively speaking, but surely can't be considered "good" for Gary when you step back from the film. Joe, in many ways, represents the best Gary can hope for out of his life, which is another kind of depressing statement entirely -- one that only dawns on you as the film draws to a close and you see him riding in Joe's old car, a dog at his side.
This gives the film the stronger thrust than you might initially expect from the likes Green and Cage -- one about devastating poverty in rural America. It doesn't put Joe quite on the level of Mud, but it doesn't leave it far behind either.