Joe is the most rewarding film directed by David Gordon Green in years, and it's also the film that leads me to suppose that there's probably no real hope of him ever returning to the exemplary heights of his early career. It is a clear improvement on and refinement of the concerns of Prince Avalanche, the film immediately preceding it in his filmography, but it's also entrenching him in a frankly less ambitious vein of work than he first made his name with. At heart, Joe is a gloomy piece of realist cinema with a bit more regional flair than normal, and it is awfully good at being that. But the sense of poetry and the uncanny knowledge of place that made George Washington one of the very best debut features of the last 15 years is totally absent. Anyone could have made Joe, though in fairness, not all that many people could have made it as well as Green has.

Filmed in the same desolate stretches of Texas as Prince Avalanche, the film tells of the relationship that grows between Joe (Nicolas Cage), an ex-convict working with a crew to clean out commercially undesirable trees to built a pine farm, and Gary (Tye Sheridan), a teenager with an alcoholic father, Wade (Gary Poulter) and a desperate need for guidance and wisdom, even from as dubious a source as Joe. Not, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, an unusual pair of figures for a character study to focus on (it's the second film in Sheridan's brief career to touch on that dynamic, after Mud) though Joe shakes loose from convention in enough ways to feel more inspired than redundant. Gary Hawkins's script is unusually alive to the economic and social conditions of rural Americans, to begin with, and Green's direction of that script draws constant focus to the mud and decrepitude and general sense of things being ancient and shitty that dominate the locations in which the story unfolds. That is, Joe works not because of the story it tells as such, but because of the way it draws that story up from an enfolding context. Joe and Gary are symptomatic of the exhausted state of poor rural whites as much as they are characters in their own right, and for building itself around a culture rather than around a fairly generic coming-of-age scenario, Joe certainly deserves our attention and respect.

That being the case, this strength also rather inevitably leads to the film's biggest liability, which is its uniformity of tone. And not just any tone, either, but the most oppressive one the filmmakers can whip up. I'm irresistibly reminded of Winter's Bone, the biggest recent example of the "savage life of the economically ravaged hinterlands of the American South and associated areas" genre, a film that is in many ways great, but ultimately doubles-down so hard on its depiction of suffering and anguish that it ends up feeling like misery porn with an artistic flourish. Joe isn't nearly so dark as that (though it's also not as probing), but its non-stop town of suffocating lack and human limitations - shored up even more by the bleak and angry score composed by Jeff McIlwain and David Wingo - ends up feeling more punishing than illuminating, and before the film ends, it's become unclear if all this harshness is driven by realism, or if it's just trying to make the audience feel bad and the punish the characters.

What saves it - much as it saved Winter's Bone, come to think of it - is the high quality of the acting. Virtually the entire cast was made up of local non-professionals, which leads to some awkward line readings from performers clearly uncomfortable with the proximity of the camera, but at least in the case of Poulter - a dysfunctional drunk playing a dysfunctional drunk, who died shortly after the film's premiere at the 2013 Venice Film Festival - the neorealist casting gambit paid off hugely, with a character whose broken, even loathsome behavior is so helplessly natural that when his put-upon, abused son smirks indulgently, it's not difficult to understand what drives that kind of surprisingly generous response.

Mostly, though, the film is dominated by its two professionals, Cage and Sheridan, both of them excellent. Sheridan is, in truth, playing a bit too close to his Mud performance, but with enough wiry adolescent fury and confusion informing his actions that it's almost as impressive as revelatory work was there. But the real revelations come from Cage, in his most controlled piece of screen acting in years: the most recent film that can even begin to compare was his manic turn for Werner Herzog in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans, but if somebody tried to sell me on the notion that his last work at this level was in Adaptation. way the hell back in 2002, I wouldn't fight them. A lot of the performance's success comes from context: we know Cage is capable of weird explosions, and when we see Joe working hard to keep himself leveled out and calm in his dealings with a world that arbitrarily beats up on him, it's easy to see the insane, hammy Cage twitching away just under the skin of this subdued, glowering Cage. But it's also less meta than that: Cage brings a wonderful burly authority and wasted sadness to the character, fleshing out depths already present in the script and insisting on the character's domestic tragedy in ways that maybe weren't so present.

Those two actors are the best insurance the film has against becoming pointlessly depressing; them, and the characteristically on-point cinematographer Tim Orr, capturing the filth and ugliness of the setting with a fascination for textures and patterns of light rather than exploiting it for maximum redneck-baiting, and contrasting this with the calming, dappled beauty of forests that blend the roughness of indie realism with the respectfully spiritual Malickisms that Green himself seems to have largely abandoned. The film looks great, but more important, that look is designed to intensify the presence and authenticity of the film rather than just show off.

All this results in a film that is strong and moving, though never quite as much as it feels like it could be; and its insights are all ultimately a little pat. The overall sense of the movie isn't entirely one of being stunned with discovery, but of reconfirming things we already knew, from Green's earlier films, from the films that took their cues from those films, and so on. If the director only ever makes films exactly this good, it will be an admirable career he has left in front of him, but not one that feels like it's pushing all that hard against a tradition of grubby American indie filmmaking that does feel like it's just about played itself out.