Despite several marvelous scenes, Joe never gels into something completely cohesive. Instead, it's a disjointed effort but one that documents a journey of two men at a crossroads.
Nicolas Cage, finally reminding us of the genuine talent that dissipated during a series of paycheck-grabbing bottom-feeders, stars as the title character, a gentle, good-hearted man prone to outbursts of violence. He's settled into a funk of hard days and harder nights. But that all changes when Gary (Tye Sheridan) wanders into the forest where Joe is working and begs for a job for himself and his alcoholic father.
This protective instinct appears to be something new for Joe, and he doesn't quite know what to do with his newfound status as surrogate father. He buys Gary and his family groceries and teaches him to drive his pick-up and lets him sneak a few beers.
These scenes have a much-needed gentler tone. Otherwise, the movie would be horribly dark. Yet director David Gordon Green, returning to the indie world after a semi-disastrous run in Hollywood, can't find the right balance. It's sad then humorous, escalating to horrific and light-hearted.
Even though that's the movie's near-undoing, it's through no fault of the tremendous cast. Sheridan, playing a similarly moody teen to the one in Mud, often confuses posturing with toughness, even though he must show it to survive. That's because his stepfather Wade (Gary Poulter, an actual drifter from the Austin area) might be not only the worst on-screen father of the year but also the worst on-screen person of the year. He's evil personified, so a scene of him breakdancing doesn't jive with the rest of the film.
The movie bears more than a passing resemblance to Sling Blade, Billy Bob Thornton's magnificent 1996 debut. That movie had a far better control on tone than Joe does. All the characters in Sling Blade felt authentic and essential to the story. Joe has several scenes where it's unclear if we're supposed to laugh at or with these people barely making ends meet.
Regardless of these caveats, Joe remains a story with some power, humor and heart. It's also essential viewing for anyone who had (rightly) written Nicolas Cage off. It's not what it could have been, but as it stands, it's well worth seeing.