Nicolas Cage gives a rare internalised performance in this atmospheric drama, which has a stronger sense of its location than it does of its story. It's been so long since Cage has been this good that we've almost forgotten that he can do it (see Adaptation or of course Leaving Las Vegas). And he shares the screen beautifully with rising-star Tye Sheridan (Mud) in this strikingly observational tale about second chances.
It's set in the rural South, where Joe (Cage) is an ex-con who has rebuilt his life as a contractor. His big job at the moment is to kill trees on land being developed outside a small town. While Joe is haunted by his past, he is respected by his work crew. His only companions are his faithful dog and a prostitute (Adriene Mishler) who serves as his makeshift girlfriend. Then the 15-year-old Gary (Sheridan) arrives looking for work, and Joe takes him under his wing. Gary's father G-Daawg (Gary Poulter) is a waste-of-space drunk who causes trouble everywhere he goes, leaving the family to live squatting in a falling-down house. Joe can identify with this troubled situation, and Gary needs a real father figure, so the two begin to rely on each other.
This is about as far as the film's narrative goes, apart from a side strand that cranks into gear to push things into a somewhat overwrought final act. This relates to Joe's violent past refusing to fade away, as a local thug (Ronnie Gene Blevins) continually goads Joe to revive a long-simmering feud. Which of course threatens the delicate balance of his positive friendship with Gary. Cage and Sheridan are terrific as the soft-spoken tough-guy mentor and his fiercely determined protege who help put each others' lives into focus. And the surrounding actors are strikingly authentic, especially non-actor Poulter as the relentless loser G-Daawg, a performance made even more poignant with the news that Poulter died while living on the streets shortly after filming finished.
After dipping into Hollywood silliness with The Pineapple Express and The Sitter, it's great to see director David Gordon Green return to the strikingly visual setting of his earlier films like George Washington and Undertow. He has a real eye for telling low-key stories that focus more on environmental textures than obvious plot points. So even though this movie is essentially taken over by a random story strand, it has a raw natural beauty and introspective tone that's both involving and deeply moving. In many ways it feels like a particularly detailed painting of a place that has seen much better days and can't quite muster up the energy to even look for hope in the future. This puts Gary's optimism in such striking contrast that it can't help but be infectious.
Run time: 117 mins
In Theaters: Friday 11th April 2014
Box Office USA: $0.4M
Distributed by: Roadside Attractions
Production compaines: Worldview Entertainment, Dreambridge Films, Rough House Pictures, Muskat Filmed Properties
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 105 Rotten: 17
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: David Gordon Green
Screenwriter: Gary Hawkins
Starring: Nicolas Cage as Joe Ransom, Tye Sheridan as Gary, Ronnie Gene Blevins as Willie, Sue Rock as Merle, Heather Kafka as Lacy, Robert Johnson as Cop #1, Gary Poulter as Wade, Adriene Mishler as Connie, Brenda Isaacs Booth as Mother Jones, Aaron Spivey-Sorrells as Sammy, Dana Freitag as Sue, Anna Niemtschk as Dorothy
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