FIFTEEN PERCENT of the United States' population lives in poverty. That's a lot of poor people, living a lot of different kinds of lives. It's weird, then, that when poor people turn up in movies and on television, their stories always seem to feature the same few elements:
1) The South
2) Bad teeth
3) Weird sex stuff
Joe hits those povertysploitation benchmarks with the businesslike efficiency of a dead-eyed, trailer-trash hooker. (Check!) Directed by David Gordon Green from the 1991 novel by Larry Brown, it's about a friendship between a man with a troubled past, Joe (Nicolas Cage), and a boy, Gary (Tye Sheridan), who's new to town and desperate to protect his sister and mother from his violent, alcoholic father. The film's quality cleaves neatly along the fault line of its source material: The acting and direction range from solid to great, while the story is an overblown, boilerplate backwoods thriller about hicks with substance abuse issues.
Joe's best sequences have little to do with moving the over-determined story along, and a lot to do with establishing relationships between men: between Joe and the men on his work crew, between Gary and his dad (before, that is, the father character devolves into ludicrous villainy), and particularly between Joe and Gary—an extended scene where the pair tour the countryside looking for Joe's lost dog, getting progressively drunker along the way, hints at a better movie that could have been. But the plot has its demands, and so Gary's dad is a nightmare figure, his sister is redneck rape bait, and his mother is a slurring shell. (Insert feminist critique here.) Joe himself is hostage to a demonic temper he just can't control—once a mysterious baddie with a scarred-up face shows up, the weaknesses in Joe's plot start to seriously outweigh the strengths.