‘Joe’ reminds us why we liked Nicolas Cage | 3 stars

04/16/2014 5:22 PM

04/16/2014 5:22 PM

Rated R | Time: 1:57

If you’ve missed Nicolas Cage and the special qualities he brings to movies, “Joe” is a good place to get reacquainted.

It’s a case of unlikely casting, and yet he couldn’t be better in it: He plays an ex-con, a big, muscular guy with a soft heart and a hot temper, who keeps trying to stay out of trouble, but can’t.

Set in rural Texas, “Joe” finds Cage in the title role as the leader of a crew with one of the most dispiriting outdoor jobs imaginable: He poisons trees. He and his men go out into the woods and hack vigorously at trees with hatchets filled with poison. The poison kills the trees, and then the lumber companies come in and buy the land on the cheap, raze everything and start all over again.

The movie mentions that this is an illegal practice, and yet poisoning trees is just an interesting little element in the backdrop. It’s something to think about as you see how earnestly Joe’s men value these jobs and try to prove their worth, even as they’re doing something awful. Instead “Joe” concerns itself with the hero’s life and his growing sense of responsibility toward one of his workers, a 15-year-old boy from a horrible family.

Joe is no model for clean living. He drinks heavily, and his relationships with women run a range between casual and sordid. But he’s a fundamentally honorable guy, and he recognizes in this kid — another thoughtful, grounded performance by young Tye Sheridan (“Mud”) — someone who has his values of hard work and loyalty.

Without intending it, Joe grows into a kind of father figure, but he has no rights, and he soon finds that every good thing he tries to do is thwarted by the boy’s real father, a drunk named Wade.

As Wade, Gary Poulter is the most authentic-looking old drunk you’ll ever see onscreen — something I thought before I knew the story of his casting: Poulter was a homeless man who was recruited by a casting director. He’d never acted before, and yet he’s remarkable in this, expertly playing a monstrous addict’s selfish reasoning, while suggesting a glimmer of submerged humanity in his eyes.

Cage doesn’t carry him but goes at him, and Poulter comes right back, giving as good as he gets. Easily, this is a performance that should have led to a real career. Unfortunately, Poulter died in February, submerged in a lake following a drinking binge.

Based on a book by Larry Brown, “Joe” is a film about morals and honor, and Cage locates the character in Joe’s inability to tolerate injustice. At the slightest hint of it, he sees red and can’t control himself, a form of virtue that’s also a curse.

“I know what keeps me alive is restraint,” he says. It’s precisely that tension — between wild impulse and white-knuckled restraint — that makes this such a good role for Cage, an actor who always seems like he might fly off the handle, even when he’s relaxed.

(At the Leawood.)

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