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Photo by Ryan Green - Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Nicolas Cage gives one of his best, most deeply-felt performances as the title character in Joe, the latest film from the versatile (and unpredictable) filmmaker David Gordon Green, whose credits range from the understated George Washington to the combustible Pineapple Express. This low-key effort has more in common with his elliptical indie Prince Avalanche, though it’s much more concrete and significantly more harsh.

The setting is rural Texas, where Joe supervises a crew of hard-working men who spend all day poisoning trees, using axes that inject a toxic liquid into the trunks. That’s not the only thing about Joe’s life that’s toxic: drunk or sober, he can barely control his hair-trigger temper. It doesn’t take much to push him over the edge, and there are always lowlifes and cocky cops around who are ready to provoke him.

If that was all there were to Joe, the film wouldn’t be terribly interesting. Instead, Gary Hawkins’ adaptation of the 1991 Larry Brown novel gives us a man of many facets. Work validates Joe’s existence, and he treats his men with care and respect. When an adolescent boy (Tye Sheridan) asks to join his crew he gives the kid a chance and winds up taking a liking to him. As he learns about the youngster’s difficult background, and witnesses how he’s mistreated by his abusive, alcoholic father, Joe takes the boy under his wing.

Joe paints a rich, multilayered portrait of a hardscrabble existence in this community, not unlike the world we encountered in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. It’s not a life many of us have experienced, yet the film feels authentic and, for all its raw brutality, never smacks of melodrama. It’s tough to watch (maybe too tough for some people), but as the story unfolds it reveals layers of humanity you might not expect to find, at first.

Tye Sheridan, who was so good in The Tree of Life and Mud, delivers another honest, straightforward performance as a boy on the cusp of adulthood who’s determined not to be a victim. The man who plays his frighteningly out-of-control father is a nonprofessional actor (like many other cast members) named Gary Poulter. It’s a memorable piece of work, and also his last, as he died not long ago; the hard life reflected in his face evidently took its toll.

Joe is the kind of movie that might euphemistically be described as challenging. (Indeed, a documentary about the author who wrote the source novel was titled The Rough South of Larry Brown.) But I can’t get the movie, or its performances, out of my head. Joe is a powerful piece of filmmaking, and a welcome return to form for Nicolas Cage.