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Review: David Gordon Green’s ‘Joe:’ The gritty return of Nicolas Cage

Remember that annoying kid in “American Beauty” who films the plastic bag and yammers on about how gorgeous it is and you think yes, it is lovely and you have a good eye for the allure of the quotidian, but can you please shut up before you get punched?

David Gordon Green is that guy minus the self-congratulatory junk, plus a weird, vibrant sense of humor. This is in no way a knock.

The Austin director (and his longtime cinematographer, fellow Austinite Tim Orr) love the look of light in nature, love meandering around to capture it in a hand-held, documentary style.

This sort of thing is all over the sometimes grittily gorgeous, sometimes despairing “Joe.” Based on the 1991 novel by the late Southern realist writer Larry Brown, “Joe,” with a story transferred from Mississippi to Texas, was shot around Austin and Bastrop.

Joe Ransom (Nicolas Cage) knows who he is but has a tough time knowing exactly what to do with that knowledge. A hard man, he’s in charge of a mostly African-America crew whose semi-legal job it is to poison trees so they can be felled for a lumber company (the trees can’t be cut down, they have to die “naturally”). Joe gets along with his employees, and they seem OK with him.

But with a criminal past and a fondness for booze, Joe needs to keep an eye on his own penchant for trouble. It’s Cage’s best work in years; he subsumes his natural oddness under a Brown-like, lower-working-class persona to excellent effect.

Into Joe’s life wanders Gary (Tye Sheridan), a neglected and abused teenager trying to support his nearly destitute family, which is headed by an alcoholic father, Wade (an astonishing performance from homeless Austinite Gary Poulter, who had long struggled with addiction and died last February).

Joe reluctantly lets Gary join the crew, who are totally fine with Gary as long as he works hard, which he does. “Keep it real with Joe,” says the foreman, essayed note-perfectly by Sam’s BBQ owner Brian May. Members of the work crew were played by local day laborers, and character moments involving them feel largely improvised.

Sheridan — who in his young career has already worked with Green, Jeff Nichols in the the similarly Texas-noirish “Mud” and Terrence Malick in “Tree of Life” — is terrific as Gary, equal parts careful resilience and constant heartbreak. Wade is a horrible man capable of great violence — one gets the impression that Gary just happens to be the nearest warm body for Wade to attack — but Gary can’t help but feel pride in getting a job that will help his family, especially his near-silent sister.

Green has proven himself strong in a wide variety of modes and tones. He can do big-budget studio comedies (the successful “Pineapple Express,” the ignored “Your Highness”), advertisements (the inadvertently political “Halftime in America” ad for Chrysler) and innovative sitcoms (“Chozen,” “Eastbound and Down”).

Here, as with his smaller films such as “George Washington,” “All the Real Girls,” “Undertow” and “Prince Avalanche,” Green moves the film along in elliptical fashion.

The strongest moments are those that feel loosest, be it the crew goofing off at lunch or Joe and Gary hanging out, figuring out what makes the other tick. Ultimately, the plot feels second to a well-executed, beautifully shot look at various struggles around class, opportunity and crushing rural poverty.

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