* * * 1/2
Based on the 1991 novel by Larry Brown, Nicolas Cage makes an undeniably impressive return to dramatic form as titular Joe Ransom, a hard-living Texas local, a small town former con both bitter and goodhearted, who frequents the local bar and whorehouse when he’s not collecting down-on-their-luck day laborers to work for him “reforesting” trees—poisoning them for a lumber company.
Into his world comes fifteen-year-old Gary Jones, whose abusive, alcoholic father (Gary Poulter) has deposited their homeless family in a condemned shack while he searches for drugs and drink. Like all teens, Gary wants money, and after begging Joe to take him on he becomes the family provider, which doesn’t go over well with dad.
Neither does Joe’s budding influence on the boy, in whom he sees a bit of himself and possibly an opportunity to right a future wrong in Gary’s trajectory. He also recognizes Gary’s dogged will in spite of such a vicious father, who also does an ill-fated stint working for Joe before returning to nefarious means to his own end.
Director David Gordon Green’s southern Gothic, coming of age story is a return to his roots for the eclectic filmmaker, who put himself on the map with 2000’s George Washington and the notable indie love story All the Real Girls, before going on to direct more commercial projects like Pineapple Express and TV’s Eastbound & Down.
And Green, raised in Texas and transplanting Brown’s Mississippi tale to his home state, delivers an authentic, small town story told with an extended cast of non-actors, including the late and terrific Poulter as the personification of pitch.
Seventeen-year-old Sheridan has carved out an impressive trio of pictures which include Tree of Life and Mud before this, and a more lyrical trio of directors one could not find. Sheridan, also a Texas native, is a simple country kid who fits into these pictures like a glove, with a southern drawl and softspokeness used so well by Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols on previous outings.
As Gary, the homeless but hopeful teen who wants a job but desperately wants Joe’s beaten up old pickup, the young actor delivers another portrait of a youth in transition, looking at adults through a child’s eyes, struggling to comprehend such mysteries. As in Mud where Matthew McConaughey was a dangerous, exciting force, Cage operates similarly here, his Joe the catalyst for Gary’s passage to manhood.
As good as Sheridan is, the real story here is Nicolas Cage in a role he so badly wanted that he accompanied Green, in character, location scouting—long before he was ever cast. As hard living Joe, a prisoner of his own vices—drink, quick temper, his own failed ambitions—Cage gets so far inside the character that when he briefly breaks for an improvisational, late film joke concerning a lighter, we are suddenly reminded of his reach.
The place and feelings and performances are note-perfect.