Nicolas Cage has the lead in 'Joe'

NICOLAS CAGE comes back from the movie dead to play the title role in "Joe," the latest from writer-director David Gordon Green.

Joe is a violent ex-con in rural Texas supervising a work crew - the men poison trees in advance of a logging operation, and if the idea of poisoned trees strike you as ripe with metaphor, you're on the same wavelength as Green.

Nicolas Cage becomes an unlikely role model to Tye Sheridan's character in "Joe."

Joe is probably beyond hope - says so himself. He's an alcoholic, he's prone to punching police officers when drunk, and his long-running feud with a local creep (Ronnie Gene Blevins) looks headed for a violent culmination.

But, into Joe's life comes a sapling of sorts - a homeless 15-year-old named Gary (Tye Sheridan from "Mud") who hooks up with the crew, works hard, earns money, only to see most of it stolen by his drunk father, who beats him.

Joe gives a nice speech about Gary being a decent kid "on the fence," poised to to fall either way, and you can sense him moving toward trying to save the boy from the life Joe himself has had to live.

There isn't much doubt about where the story's headed. Getting there, in a character-driven and roundabout way, is what Green's picture is really about.

Sheridan and Cage have a good, surrogate father-son rapport, and Green does a nice job creating scenes of improvised bonhomie among the men on Joe's crew. "Joe" has the feel of a picture that brings local residents and nonprofessionals into its midst, giving it a lived-in sense of place.

The movie, though, makes weird, too-frequent lurches into the lurid. Some of this seems designed to give us permission to applaud the movie's violent conclusion, which follows hard on the heels of a guy donning a rabbit mask to lure a mute girl into the back of a truck.

In those moments, a character study becomes a post-Leatherface Texas horror show, and "Joe" loses its way.