You can sometimes tell a filmmaker’s attitude toward his characters by their teeth. In David Gordon Green’s Grand Guignol meets Grand Ole Opry adaptation of Larry Brown’s 1991 novel, “Joe,” almost everybody has bad teeth and Green makes sure you notice. I would have said that they probably spent more on dental prosthetics than on catering, except many in the cast are actual homeless people and the teeth are their own. Make of that what you will, but I can’t help thinking of Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander,” in which a fashion designer shows off his new clothing line called “Derelicte.”
As the title character, Nicolas Cage looks like he has pretty good teeth. But he’s one angry guy, not unlike his namesake played by Peter Boyle in the 1970 movie of the same title. Pushing 50, a heavy drinker, a hacking chain-smoker, and a frequenter of prostitutes, he’s the nicest guy in the movie. Like Jonathan Swift, his breast is lacerated by savage indignation, and having no gift for satiric prose, he just beats the crap out of people. That has gotten him some prison time, but now he’s settled down running a crew of workers that poisons trees for property developers.
Nonetheless, things still eat at him, and most recently he beat up Willie (Ronnie Gene Blevins), a dentally challenged poltroon and bully who vows revenge. He has also taken a shine to Gary (Tye Sheridan, who looks a little like Hilary Swank in “Boys Don’t Cry”), a teenager from a family of dirt-poor outcasts who has a good heart and wants to work hard to help out his folks — his mute, molested younger sister; his battered, near-toothless mother; and his raging alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter), who probably has the worst teeth in the movie.
“Joe” is one more in the line of Southern Gothic miserabilism that includes “Winter’s Bone” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” films that many have praised but some find condescending. In previous films Green has shown more insight and sensitivity in his treatment of lower-class characters, touching on genuine pathos and tragedy, most notably in his debut film, “George Washington.” He has also demonstrated a knack for gross-out comedy in the very funny “Pineapple Express.” This is something in between — call it gross-out tragedy.
Whatever you call it, it’s not quite right. The cinematography prettifies both the natural beauty and man-made squalor in frequent long takes aglow in a rosy Texas dusk or dawn. But such good taste underscores the distance between the aestheticized spectacle and the grim reality. So does the fate of Poulter, whose depiction of a man destroyed by booze seems so convincing because that’s what he was. After the film was made, his body was found in a lake, where he had apparently fallen. The medical examiner determined Poulter’s death was the result of drowning with acute ethanol poisoning.