Joe by Larry Brown (1991)
Joe directed by David Gordon Green (2013)
Before getting into the book and movie, I wanted to share some background on Larry Brown. Mainly, the fact that he was self-taught! One day in his mid 20’s he just decided to start writing, and figured if he kept writing long enough, eventually he would write something people were interested in. I found an article about him written by the author Jonathon Miles and I wanted to share an excerpt from that.
“Larry Brown wrote about human frailties. He wrote about people whose lives have come to feel stunted, or unmoored, and who find themselves unable or unwilling to resist perilous impulses: for sex, for alcohol, for violence, for numbness, for the kind of crazed love that doubles as a wrecking ball, even for art. He wrote about people in dire straits—emotional, financial, romantic, existential—who often choose, with varying levels of awareness, to make things more dire: to burn it all down, in some cases; in others, just to feel a new kind of heat. Among Larry’s many strengths as a writer, maybe foremost, was a kind of negative capability: He never flinched. His characters flowed onto the page without dilution or filtering, their defects left intact—their confusions, bigotries, lusts, fears, cruelties, all the sediment of their weaknesses. That’s one reason, aside from deadline glibness, that reviewers sometimes likened his stories’ effects to moonshine’s: they burn, they bite, they leave a scalded sensation in your chest. Larry never sought for us to admire his characters, or even to side with them; but he refused to let us scorn or pity them either. What he asked us to afford them was the same thing he applied, rigorously, to their creation: unsparing empathy. The source of his achievement, I think, is this very empathy—his clear and tender regard for human frailties, his adherence to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s assertion that both good and bad people are invariably less so than they seem.”
Joe Ransom has a group of men he hires to kill trees so they can be replaced with different ones. He meets a 15-year-old named Gary who approaches them and asks if Joe could hire him and his dad. Gary is a hard worker, but the dad, a man named Wade, is old, tired and lazy. At the end of the day, he pays them what he owes them and says he doesn’t need them anymore. As they walk off to their shack, Joe sees Wade beat Gary and take the money.
Gary walks to Joe’s house and asks if he can hire him back, Joe likes Gary and says he can work for him again, but Wade can’t.
Joe and Gary form a bond. Gary’s own father is hardly ever around, and is a violent, abusive drunk who is just an evil person. Joe is far from a shining role model, he himself having kids he doesn’t have much of a relationship with, but he takes Gary under his wing and teaches him things Gary should know.
In the end, Gary buys Joe’s old truck, however Wade steals the keys and runs off with it. Joe sees Gary walking and sees he has a fresh shiner and asks what happened. They go looking for Gary’s truck and Gary tells him that his little sister, who is only 12 and won’t talk, is gone too. Joe has a sick feeling in his stomach about what is happening with her.
They find Wade outside of the truck, the sister is in the back with men who have paid to have their way with her. Joe tells Gary to grab her and take his truck and go. It says they see each other for the last time, and from there the book ends.
I loved the slow pace of this book and how Brown takes his time, letting us get to know the characters. A lot of it is describing their daily life and letting us see these three different men and what they do with their time and money.
Brown has some beautiful passages, but the dialogue is very natural and flows in a realistic way. Some writers have beautiful passages of dialogue, and as much as I love eloquent words, let’s be honest, it isn’t always accurate as to how people actually talk.
This is a vivid, unflinching story about the gritty lives in the south, where everyone seems to be an alcoholic. If Joe were the standard hero, he would probably not drink and have healthy relationships. But he is constantly drinking and driving, he doesn’t spend time with his kids, and frequents brothels. When you compare him to Wade though, Joe looks like a knight in shining armor who is going to rescue Gary.
I was surprised how many of my favorite scenes from the movie, were pulled word for word from the book. The actors feel so natural and you forget you’re are even watching actors. Clearly a lot is scripted because so much of the dialogue is pulled right from the book (which as I said, the dialogue is so real in the book and feels so natural. So, when it is put in the movie exactly as is, it doesn’t feel off) but I’m guessing there were a number of scenes when people are chatting that must have been just improvised because again, it just feels so smooth and real.
I’ll start with Wade, Gary’s dad. In the book we learn that he had lived in this town decades before; he and a couple other guys had killed a man and Wade left after that. Some people in the town remember this, including the store owner John Coleman. He tells Joe, and later Joe has a line where he thinks how with Gary, it doesn’t matter what his dad did but only matters what Gary does. This is juxtaposed when Gary is working with this other guy and after putting in a hard day’s work, the man realizes who Gary is related to and then treats him very poorly.
In both, we see that Wade is a violent, abusive alcoholic; evil even. The movie leaves out the fact that he had killed a man years before but both book and movie have the scene where he approaches another homeless man and kills him in order to get the man’s drink and whatever change he has on him. This is such a powerful and upsetting scene in the movie and this is one that comes straight from the book.
The movie also leaves out before this, Wade is arrested for being drunk and disorderly. He is charged with a fine but he can’t afford to pay it so he has to stay in prison and be on a work gang to pay off the fine. He ends up pulling a Cool Hand Luke escape-while working, he finds a reason to go to the truck, then just drives it off.
In the movie, we see that Wade has his son, Gary, and a daughter named Dorothy. In the book, there is a second sister named Faye who is older and early on in the book she talks back to Wade and even beats him at one point. Around the halfway point, she decides to leave.
There is also talk of two other brothers and it isn’t till the end we realize what happened to them. One, fell off the back of a truck when they were on the move, and was run over by the car behind them. The other was just a baby named Calvin and it is revealed right at the end, that Wade traded Calvin for a car, and possibly some money. We also hear that he’d had like five daughters and I guess they’ve all run away. Or worse, considering what he does to Dorothy.
In the movie we don’t see too much of the wife/Gary’s mom. She seems pretty out of it though. In the book, she was delusional and just wasn’t really there and has obviously been traumatized by the events in her life. There are scenes where she is talking as if she doesn’t realize where she is, but other times is more coherent. There is also a really sad scene where she is talking about a dream she had about Calvin. Though at the time she is talking about him, the reader doesn’t know the backstory yet.
Before moving on, I wanted to mention Gary Poulter who plays Wade in the movie. Green hired a lot of locals for the movie (it was filmed in Texas, though the book takes place in Mississippi) and Poulter was a homeless alcoholic in real life. He gives an incredible performance, and I guess partly why is because Wade’s life wasn’t too far off from Poulter’s own experiences. He was found dead just a few months after the movie was released.
In the book and movie, the first we see of Willie is when he ambushes Joe and shoots him. From there in the movie, we see him clean the rifle off and then throw it over a bridge. Gary and Wade are nearby and Gary approaches Willie and asks if he can give them a ride into town. Willie says yeah, and he and Gary start talking. Willie is obviously drunk and is just kind of rambling and things begin to escalate pretty quickly when he makes a comment about Gary’s sister (whom he hasn’t met). They then get in a fight, and Gary gets the upper hand. He beats Willie, then he and Wade walk off.
In the book, Gary approaches Willie on the bridge, asks for a ride, Willie says yes, and then they ride with him. Wade and Willie hit it off and are drinking together and talking about whatever while Gary sits uncomfortably.
In the book, Willie is later beat up on a bridge, but in the book it is Joe is comes across Willie and beats him up when Willie claims he wants to let bygones be bygones. This happens in a similar way in the movie, but it takes place in a bar. In the movie, Willie is asking Joe about Gary, whereas in the book that wasn’t the case.
Gary is a character your heart will ache for and who deserves any good thing that comes his way. You feel for him right away. In the book an early scene is him and Wade digging through trash when they are caught and the owner makes them pick up the mess they made and put it back. Wade of course doesn’t help and just watches as Gary cleans up. When the guy leaves, Wade tells Gary to get back to it and dig through the trash now that the guy is gone. In the movie, the first time Joe sees Gary is when it is raining, he sees them going through the trash.
Gary is such an endearing, innocent character who wants to provide a better life for himself and his family. In book and movie, Joe says how Gary is the hardest worker he knows. That scene I mentioned earlier, where Gary is working for that other guy who ends up being rude to him-while there he is working alongside another young guy and that guy says something along the lines of the money not being a big deal. Whereas with Gary, he needs the work and the money.
The bond he forms with Joe is so heartwarming, especially in the movie.
In both book and movie, we have the scene where he goes with Joe as Joe tries to find his dog. This scene played better in the movie not only because Cage and Sheridan are both so excellent, but also because in the book he takes him to the brothel.
In both, Gary is drinking beers with Joe, Gary’s first time ever drinking. In the book it says of this, “He understood now what the old man was after on all those nights and weekends and weeks sometimes, what he went for and what he wanted to feel. Nothing mattered now, he knew it the first time he met it.” When I read that, I was like, noooo! Don’t become an alcoholic! Which by the way, literally everyone in this book but Gary seems to be an alcoholic. They drink first thing in the morning, they drink while driving, they drink while at work, they drink constantly!
On top of that, Joe takes him to the brothel and pays a woman to take Gary’s virginity. In this scene we see how naïve Gary is, and we also learn he not only has never brushed his teeth, but he also doesn’t even know how to brush his teeth! The woman is described as being really young, which is sad, but still, Gary is only 15! Disgusting to have an adult woman have sex with someone that young. This is a coming-of-age story in regard to Gary, and I get sex is a big deal for a boy when he is coming of age, but I wasn’t a fan of that scene. It made me think of Paint Your Wagon when they take the young innocent guy to a bar, get him drunk, and take him to a prostitute. From then on, that character only cares about drinking and having sex. It was supposed to be funny in Paint Your Wagon, and I am probably making too big of a deal of it in Joe but come on! Gary is still young and even though he has had to grow up quick as far as responsibilities, it doesn’t mean you need to rush him into any other grown-up things.
This scene isn’t in the movie though. After finding the dog, Joe takes Gary home.
Joe and the cops
In the movie there are two scenes where Joe goes to the brothel, the first time he doesn’t stay long because their dog is there barking at him. The second time is after his fight with Willie in the bar. He is all tense from the interaction and goes to the house but the dog once again is being aggressive. He then drives home, gets his dog and has his dog fight their dog. His dog kills the other and this is why cops are later chasing him. This is in both book and movie, though in the book this happens his first time we see him go there.
In both, we see that the cops in the town are on him since he is an ex-con. The scene after the dog fight is a great part between him and the cops, then a later scene where a cop is after him for literally no reason is again a great scene. I will say, these scenes in the book didn’t make me feel tense or on edge, but when I watched the movie, I remember so many scenes putting me on the edge of my seat and holding my breath. Such as the scene with Wade killing the homeless man, and both of these scenes with Joe. The dog fight scene in particular was pretty shocking my first time seeing the movie. The fight isn’t shown directly and it’s dimly lit, but that whole scene, starting with the confrontation with Willie, up until he is in jail, is such a tense ten minutes.
In the book he talks about how unfair the legal system is, because rich people can get away with whatever they want, and it is the poor people who have to pay the price.
Joe is definitely a gray character. Even his job is a legal gray area. Companies don’t want the trees and want to plant different trees that we can actually use. But you can’t just cut trees down, so Joe and his crew poison the trees, which cause them to die, which make it okay to cut them down.
I also want to mention a great scene in the movie when Joe gives Wade a lift and Wade starts to talk crap about Gary and Joe grabs him and tells him that Gary is a good kid and if Wade does anything Joe will beat him up basically. This is in the book, but in the book, he actually drives Wade home and as they approach the home, Joe is annoyed by Wade and tells him to get out before they reach his home.
In the movie, Joe’s repressed anger is a bigger thing and he even has this monologue about how restraint is how he has been able to make it this long-stopping himself from doing the things he wants to do. We saw that in the book, but it seemed to be highlighted in the movie.
Early in the book we see Joe visiting a woman at work, trying to take her to lunch but she isn’t interested. We later learn that this is his ex-wife. His daughter comes to visit him, and she is pregnant and almost due. He has a good visit with her, until Joe’s sorta girlfriend Connie walks out, and the daughter is disgusted because Connie is her age and she walks out.
In the movie, near the end he is driving home and sees a woman in another car and they exchange a look-her a look of guilt almost, and Joe a look of…contempt…? Then the sheriff visits him and says that Joe has a new grandbaby which Joe had no idea about. My first time watching this, I didn’t even catch that part. So even though the movie does show that he has an ex-wife and kids he doesn’t have a good relationship with, the book shows this more. In the book, his ex even visits him, telling him he should see his grandson and then she makes a move on him and they have sex. Which, by the way, in the book there are many times when Joe says how he has a difficult time having sex, saying he is too old (he is only 43). Even when he goes to the brothel, he never has sex that we see. But he does have sex with this ex, and then right before the end, he meets a woman in a bar and the two of them spend the weekend together.
In the book and movie, Joe bonds with Gary and connects with him. In the movie, the bond felt more powerful. There is a scene in particular, when Wade has beaten Gary and taken Gary’s truck, and Gary goes to Joe. Gary is emotional and angry, initially resisting any touch from Joe. But joe hugs him and calls him son and tells him he and his sisters can come stay with him. Gary then says that Wade took Dorothy with him. This moment is when Joe officially changes. Throughout the movie, despite being a good person, he is selfish and seems to have a hard time opening up to those who want to have a relationship with him. When he says not only Gary, but also his mom and sister can live with him, that is a sacrifice for him considering the life he lives.
Then later, he makes the ultimate sacrifice when he dies saving Gary and his sister.
In the movie, we see him shoot Willie and man, that’s one of those times where you are so happy to see someone killed because that guy was the worst. Just the biggest pos out there. Anyway, he shoots Willie, but is then shot by the guy who had been with Willie. He is able to shoot the other guy, then goes to the bridge where Wade is and tries to shoot Wade but misses because he is dying and can’t see straight. Wade then gets on the bridge and jumps over.
We then see Gary and the cops coming up to find the men dead. Then flashforward and see Gary with the truck and Joe’s dog has he starts a new job with a guy who had known Joe.
As I said earlier, Gary doesn’t go to Joe’s house, but Joe sees him walking as Joe is driving back from spending the weekend with that woman and pulls over.
I wanted to talk about that woman though, because Joe wakes up at her place with a note telling him what time she will be back. He wants to leave before she returns, but then she gets back and they spend the weekend together and both have a great time. She is divorced, and Joe wonders how a man could give a woman like her up. It seems significant that he has this great weekend literally right before he then dies.
Anyway, we don’t actually see him die in the book and we don’t learn the details of how things play out. In the end though, we see Gary with his mom and sister. So, it seems that at least Joe and Wade both died, but we don’t know how exactly.
Just some quick things I want to mention before I close.
In the book, there are multiple times there is a dead body present. When he picks Junior up for work, there is a dead body being taken away. Later, in the end, he goes to that house where he plays cards (the one where he helped them cut up the deer) and there is a dead woman there. This was an especially ominous scene. None of this is in the movie.
Wade works for Joe in both book and movie, and is not a hard worker by any means. In the movie he gets in an argument with Junior, but this wasn’t in the book. In the book, it does talk about how near the end of the season, workers were wanting to quit and Joe even gets in a fight with one who is giving him attitude. I also love in the movie, when Wade is working with them and at lunch time they are gathered together chatting and Gary’s there, however Wade is off to the side, choosing to isolate himself.
I didn’t mention Connie, the young woman who comes to stay with Joe. She wants to have a relationship with him, but Joe keeps her at arms distance. This is the same in book and movie. One difference is that in the movie when she sees Gary with a black eye Joe says that Wade did it and he saw it happen. She says, you just let it happen? To which he says “I can’t get my hands dirty in every little thing” she retorts something and he says, “don’t fool yourself too much about me” She is wanting him to be someone he simply isn’t. At least he isn’t willing to be that for her. In the book he doesn’t tell her he saw Wade hit Gary.
Book vs Movie
This book wasn’t the gut punch the movie was, but that could have been due to me already knowing what was going to happen. However, as I watched the movie for the first time, I remember thinking Joe would end up dying in the end. Even so, the movie is so tense, heartbreaking, and even hopeful.
There were things I remember wishing there was more background on in the movie, like why Willie and Wade met up and how they ended up in the situation where Willie was paying to have sex with Dorothy. I guess it wasn’t needed though. They are two terrible people who have no morals and no kindness in them. Plus, they are alcoholics who have been so consumed by their addiction.
Anyway, I loved the book and would give it four stars, whereas the movie is five stars for me and is just such a powerhouse of a film.