David Gordon Green's "Joe" is a taxing viewing experience, a sluggish, slow-burn drama set in poverty-mired Mississippi about the bond that gradually builds between a drifter boy ("Mud"'s Tye Sheridan) and a simmering ex-con (Nicolas Cage). Struggling to muster a mood of impending eruption, "Joe" is weighed down by dramatic inertia and lethargic pacing, with scenes often grinding on far longer than they need to without enough justification in terms of character-building significance or absorbing dialogue.
Cage is the titular Joe, a rough-edged bear of a man who runs an illegal tree-killing outfit (poisoning "the wood nobody wants" so lumber companies can sweep in to replant saleable pine). He's unfulfilled and drifting through life, boozing, whoring and trying to keep the lid on a vicious temper that once landed him in prison and now brings him into conflict with the local super-creep (Ronnie Gene Blevins). Into his sphere drifts 15-year-old Gary, whose itinerant family are squatting an abandoned house but who has brains and work ethic to spare. Gary quickly endears himself to Joe, who hires him for his tree-murder squad but then has to cope with another monstrous scumbag, Gary's thieving, abusive, alcoholic father.
The first half of "Joe" is particularly strained, struggling to gather momentum due to drifting interludes involving Joe's predominantly African-American crew, or his visits to poverty-stricken townfolk and run-ins with local police. A senseless killing is committed by one character whose irredeemable loathsomeness has already been hammered home hard, and there's far too much set-up for the outburst of violence we know will come when Joe succumbs to his inner demons.
"Joe" was adapted from a novel by Larry Brown which was highly praised for its lyrical approach to disturbing content and nasty characters. Up on the screen, however, where this story is heading feels obvious from the get-go so it's perplexing why Green takes so long to get there, leaching the potency of a should-have-been-shattering climax. While both Cage and Sheridan are very watchable, especially in the scenes they share together, "Joe" is ultimately too underpowered to make it anything other than ordinary.