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Sex, liquor, cigarettes and dogs – ★★★½

David Gordon Green surprised everyone with last year’s under-rated gem Prince Avalanche. He had found most success as a comedy man having made his name on things like Pineapple Express, The Sitter and TV’s “Eastbound and Down”, so to see him moving to drama was a pleasant surprise.

His next pictures sees him tapping up Nic Cage to make his bi-annual “proper film”. Cage plays the titular character Joe, a man doing his best to stay out of trouble by heading up a team of men who go around killing trees that can’t legally be cut down unless they’re dead. He becomes an unlikely role model for Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teen whose own domestic situation is made far from ideal by his alcoholic father.

Gary Poulter

Gary Poulter

The film is set in small-town Texas and looks sweltering hot and draining. Despite the strikingly sparse scenery, Green doesn’t go for any showy directing and instead just lets his actors get to work with their environment. He uses a lot of non-professional actors, with most of Cage’s forest crew giving us the sense they’re just going about their day jobs.

Audiences will know Tye Sheridan from Mud and The Tree of Life and he does well here again and is a perfectly natural screen presence in the sweaty South. It may now be time for the young Texas native to spread his wings and it will be interesting to see how he handles the upcoming “horror comedy” Scouts vs. Zombies.

Cage stays on-track for the most part and it’s a pleasure to see him forming a character like we know we can whenever he isn’t trying to save the world with the Declaration of Independence. There’s plenty of debauchery in bars and brothels but perhaps the most memorable scene features Joe and Gary driving around, having some beers, looking for a dog. Perhaps it’s so memorable because it’s one of the least miserable scenes in a pretty grim film.

The film debuted at last autumn’s Venice and Toronto film festivals and you suspect one of the reasons the film may have been delayed until now is because of the death of one of the actors in the film after production. Gary Poulter, who plays Gary’s father, was a homeless alcoholic hired to play an almost-homeless alcoholic. He makes for an unsettling and captivating screen presence, and the fact he was found dead in a lake two months after production wrapped. There was plenty written about the real-life tragedy during the film’s initial festival run and you get the sense the distributors may have opted to wait until now to release it overseas to avoid the awkward, ethical questions of hiring a troubled, non-professional actor.

The film falls down a little bit in its pacing and focus. Joe’s antagonist Willie is a bit hard to get your head around and the father-son and role-model metaphors may be laid on a little too thick for some people’s liking. Putting those quibbles aside it’s well worth a watch.

Released on and in selected cinemas on July 25th 2014

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