This is one of the darkest, bleakest films I have seen in a long time. All characters, without any exception, are unhappy souls, surviving in a grim world, unable to improve their lives, prone to an almost genetically determined urge to mess things up.
The image of rural America this film paints, is almost like that of a third world country. Most men have a cigarette in one hand and a bottle in the other. Dysfunctional families live in decaying shacks, without money or food. Violent dogs are barking everywhere. Disagreements are settled by fistfights or, in some cases, by bullets. The only community centres are a grocery store and a whorehouse. Homeless people are killed for a few dollars and a bottle of liquor.
The central character is Joe, an outstanding role from Nicolas Cage. He is a loner, living on the edge of society, earning a living by poisoning trees so that they can be removed legally. He hires workers on a daily basis, one of them being a 15 year old kid who regularly gets beaten up by his alcoholic father. They get to like each other, but when the boy seeks Joe's protection, things get out of hand.
The main characteristic of the film is the gloomy atmosphere, emphasizing the desolate hopelessness. The cinematography is stark and bare, with only the soundtrack adding some effect. The acting is very effective. Above all the part of the boy's father is worth mentioning. It is played by a local homeless man, who apparently died a few weeks after shooting was finished.
Some reviewers compared 'Joe' tot 'Mud'. An obvious similarity is Tye Sheridan, who plays the same sort of role in both films, as a young kid who befriends an older man. But to me, 'Joe' had much more in common with 'Winter's Bone'. This film was also set in rural America, with Jennifer Lawrence as a teenager trying to keep her dignity in a world of violence and dysfunctional families.