When, in the midst of David Gordon Green’s drama, Joe (Nicolas Cage) picks up a poisonous snake, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a metaphor, but it did happen. After a post-Bad Lieutenant/Kick-Ass rough patch (Season Of The Witch, Stolen et al), Joe sees Cage, an Oscar-winning actor lest we forget, grasping the snake – a slippery, difficult, unlovable role – and more than proving his mettle. Could this Mud-minus-the-sunshine represent his very own McConaissance?
Based on Larry Brown’s 1992 grit-lit novel and steeped in the same grinding poverty as Winter’s Bone, Joe begins as it means to go on, with hobo Wade (Gary Poulter) and his teenage son Gary (Tye Sheridan, from Mud) sitting, lost, on the railway tracks. “Every time we land you say it’s going to be different, but it ain’t,” complains Gary. Wade slugs him in the face. It’s not the only time you’ll hear a sharp intake of breath from the audience.
New to small-town Mississippi and completely destitute, Wade and Gary get a job working on Joe’s clearance team, poisoning trees. Only Joe’s filled with a poison of his own: a violence inside that he can’t keep down. In this murky Brown-Green world, it seems, nobody can. “It’s all just gonna boil up and wash us all away,” he says sadly.
As this chain-smoking, binge-drinking, bruiserwith-a-heart, Cage is better – realer – than he’s been for years, though his star power is arguably distracting among such human detritus. Sheridan is a natural: innocent and battle-hardened all at once. Poulter, meanwhile, a homeless non-actor in his first ever role, is terrifying: a pathetic, profane man ruined by moonshine and disappointment. One minute he’s showing Gary his breakdancing moves, the next he’s bouncing him off the walls.
Even Joe doesn’t defend his protégé, reasoning, “He’s a big kid.” But gradually, and against his better judgement, they become friends, trading Brown’s raw, wry dialogue as they drink-drive around town waiting for trouble to find them. And find them it surely does.
Following a slow-burn first act comes a middle section of such shocking bloodshed, it’s among the most confrontational 20 minutes of celluloid you’ll see all year. It’s so upsetting, in fact, that the story takes a while to recover, shuffling towards its neat conclusion like Poulter’s lumbering drunk. If this were a kinder film, or a kinder universe, all three leads would be potential award winners. But Sheridan’s too unshowy, and Poulter tragically died after filming, so it’s up to Cage to grab the plaudits like he grasped that snake.
Green’s soul-baring Southern noir has much to say about those who speak with their fists and is a masterwork of threatening melancholy.