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‘Joe’: Gripping drama with Nicolas Cage as father figure

Joe (Nicolas Cage) helps troubled Gary (Tye Sheridan) “Joe.” |  ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Joe (Nicolas Cage) helps troubled Gary (Tye Sheridan) in “Joe.” | ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

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‘JOE’ ★★★

Joe Nicolas Cage

Gary Tye Sheridan

Wade Gary Poulter

Connie Adriene Mishler

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions present a film directed by David Gordon Green and written by Gary Hawkins, based on a novel by Larry Brown. Running time: 117 minutes. Rated R (for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content). Opens Friday at 600 N. Michigan and South Barrington 30 in Barrington.

Updated: May 12, 2014 6:16AM

Joe (Nicolas Cage) is a fallen man who redeems himself by uplifting a boy in need. Fitfully managing his rage and chronic drinking, he turns into a paternal figure for Gary (Tye Sheridan from “Mud” and “The Tree of Life”), a 15-year-old tormented by a vile drunk of a dad.

Brown, himself the son of a violent drunk, likened the stench of that character to “a giddy putrefaction of something gone far past bad.” The Austin alcoholic playing Gary’s father — cast from the streets — did not live to see his indelible turn reach the screen.

David Gordon Green directs a gritty script that Gary Hawkins adapts from a 1991 novel by Larry Brown. Gripping and at times agonizing, “Joe” joins rural regionalist films like Green’s “Undertow” (2004), Lance Hammer’s “Ballast” (2008) and Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010).

As a coming-of-age story, “Joe” also compares with “Mud” by Jeff Nichols. Both Arkansas natives, Green and Nichols attended film school in North Carolina. There Green met Hawkins by working on his 1991 documentary “The Rough South of Larry Brown.”

Brown (1951-2004) lived in Mississippi, where he once worked on a crew that “deadened” trees with poison so Weyerhaeuser could plant more profitable timber. Green relocates the plot to Texas, where Joe hires Gary on a similarly illegal crew. Local African-American day laborers improvise most of their scenes with Cage and Sheridan. They swing hatchets outfitted with tubes that splash lethal fluid into tree wounds.

More than a mentor, Joe emerges as a savior of Gary’s mute, imperiled sister. This noble resolve for justice draws on classic genres. As Hawkins told an interviewer: “It’s cowboy. Samurai. Joe is an old Samurai searching for a ‘right death.’ ”

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