Cage, Texas make ‘Joe’ an unsettling study of teen’s search for a mentor

Nicolas Cage has been garnering a lot of approving notices for his title performance in “Joe,” and it’s easy to see why. He’s backed away from some of the tics that dominate his wilder turns, and at age 50 he’s seasoned, with a face that looks lived-in.

But let’s not say he’s mellowed. Never that.

Still, Cage is not the best part of “Joe.” He’s solid, but the movie itself is strongest at creating a sense of place, a strange subculture found off the main road.

Credit for that goes to director David Gordon Green, a native Arkansan who can work in near-plotless form (“All the Real Girls”) or in multiplex comedies (“Pineapple Express”). The place is rural Texas, which is depicted as just remote and insular enough for a guy like Joe to quietly disappear.

He runs a work crew with a weirdly specific function; these guys pump poison into the trunks of trees, so a lumber company can exploit a technicality to clear the land and plant pine. Joe drinks a lot, visits the nearby bordello, and generally keeps a low profile — a man trying to forget past troubles with the law.

Gary, 15, (Tye Sheridan) comes around the workplace, willing to work hard. He’s been drifting with his violent, alcoholic father (Gary Poulter), but is now ready to define himself.

Sheridan is very good in his role, which puts him in a similar position as his role in “Mud”: at loose ends, willing to be tutored by a rough-edged man with paternal instincts. Both he and Cage do nicely at downplaying the sentimental aspects of this premise.

Equally convincing is Gary Poulter, a powerful presence as the father. Poulter was a homeless man on the streets of Austin when he was cast in the film, and died a couple of months after shooting ended.

We can see that Joe will have to spring into action at some point; he’s as tethered as the pit bull he keeps chained up beneath his house. Until that point comes, the movie creates a textured world of shacks, dirt roads and long-simmering resentments.

This world includes people who come and go. We’d probably like to know more about the woman (Adriene Mishler) who hangs around with Joe for a while, or the madame (Sue Rock). Or for that matter, the menacing freako (Ronnie Gene Blevins) whose mission is inspired by something in Joe’s past.

Some of these strands are undeveloped, perhaps intentionally so. The movie is not quite wholly satisfying, maybe because of the way it disdains conventional drama. But if you want to feel like you’re visiting an authentic place, with memorable people and language, then “Joe” might be a worthwhile trip.

“Joe” (3 stars)

A disciplined performance from Nicolas Cage and a strong sense of place (rural Texas) give this character study a solid grounding. It’s a slice-of-life look at a teenager (Tye Sheridan) who badly needs a father figure, even one as troubled as Cage’s reformed ex-con.

Rating: R, for violence, subject matter

Opening: Friday at Sundance Cinemas Seattle.

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