As at most festivals, screenings at Venice are preceded by a recorded message asking everyone to turn off their cellphones. A very cultured-sounding lady delivers this request first in Italian and then in English. She caps off the English version with the words, “Thank you for your collaboration.”
My what? But then, watching movies is sort of a collaborative process, a give-and-take between the viewer and what the filmmakers have crafted. And sometimes the process demands more of us than we'd like to give. David Gordon Green's Joe—based on a novel by Larry Brown and screening in competition here—is an ugly little movie, supposedly redeemed by its ultimate sweetness. I'm not buying it. Nicolas Cage stars as the Joe of the title, a man who makes his living killing trees. Yes, that's right—he runs an outfit that hacks away at live but useless trees with “juice hatchets” filled with poison; that way, they can be taken down and replaced with strong, profitable pines. Unlike the Samuel Beckett–meets–Mutt and Jeff line painters of Prince Avalanche, Joe and his crew are subtracting something from the world, not adding to it.
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Joe is a rough guy—he's done a stint in the pen, and he's got a temper on him, though he has learned to control it. But he's not a totally bad fellow, and he has a soft spot for the bright, ambitious kid who approaches him one day asking for work. Fifteen-year-old Gary—played by Tye Sheridan, who also appeared recently in Mud—has an abusive drunk for a father, and even by the standards of this rural area, where life is hard to begin with, the kid sure is in a mess. In the movie's best sequence, Joe and Gary take a little field trip, and Joe schools the kid in such essentials as putting on “a cool face,” which involves getting in touch with one's inner pain and then attempting some version of a smile.
It's the only moment where Cage really loosens up. As much of a relief it is to see this extraordinarily gifted actor play something other than a witch hunter, sorcerer or Ghost Rider, Joe doesn't give him much to work with. The picture is self-consciously brutal; it really labors to make the point that life sure ain't easy for these hardscrabble folk. Green gives us a world of barking dogs, saggy couches and pilling flannel shirts. There's even a local whorehouse, where the sullen girls sit in a dark room watching TV, waiting for customers. At one point, Joe drops by the home of a friend who is skinning a deer—Joe takes up the knife and begins sawing expertly at the bloody carcass, just because he can.
The whole thing makes Winter's Bone look as cheerful as a Li'l Abner strip, and there's something distastefully condescending about it. Joe's single redeeming element is Sheridan's performance: He's a charismatic presence, but there's some weight there, too. He succeeds in playing a person, not a sociological specimen. He wins you over to his side, even if you find yourself resisting everything else about the movie. In other words, he makes you his collaborator.