Not many of your crew were required to coordinate the animals in director David Gordon Green's Joe, were they? I counted only two dogs. Yet it's no accident that the breeds that are featured - a German shepherd and an American bulldog - are known both for their viciousness and their fierce protectiveness. These base instincts are also what drives Joe's main characters.
Sure, the "animals represent the characters" seems like a pretty facile insight. But Green, working from a screenplay by Gary Hawkins which was adapted from Larry Brown's novel, is too subtle a filmmaker to put such ideas in the forefront. True, he may have directed The Pineapple Express and Your Highness, but here Green is working in the quieter, reflective mode of George Washington (few directors oscillate more extremely between projects than he does). The dogs you coordinated and oversaw aren't grafted onto Joe as some easy symbolism; they're part of an organic thematic approach that has roots in the film's Texas locations and permeates just about everything else.
The notion of nature and instinct is embodied in the titular character played by Nicolas Cage. The performance reminds us of the naturalistic powerhouse he can be when and if he wants (it can't be a coincidence that the quality of a Cage performance often rises to meet the material). Joe is a man struggling to control his own violent impulses. He lives a fairly solitary existence, focusing on work, drinking, and socializing with working girls at the local whorehouse. He sees himself as a toxic influence on those around him, a fact literalized in his day job, where he runs a crew that poisons healthy trees so landowners have a reason to clearcut and plant new trees better suited for lumber. When Gary, a 15 year-old boy, shows up looking for work for him and his alcoholic father Wade, Joe sees someone headed down a path he is far too familiar.
Working with animals, you know well that the most base instinct is one of self-preservation, and Joe is true to himself in that regard. He takes a liking to Gary, but when hiw father joins the crew, Joe, sensing danger, tries to cut them loose. However, when Joe is awoken by his own guard dog to finds a beaten, soaked Gary, that protective instinct comes to the fore. Joe has no use for those he thinks are just plain bad--dog or human. And in Wade, who helpfully wears a jacket emblazoned with the title "G-Daawg", Joe sees a beast beyond redemption. A few scenes, made all the more harrowing with the quiet naturalism Green employs, let us know that Joe is on the mark in his assessment._ In a scene that must have been particularly hard for you to watch, Joe puts in motion his own gruesome interpretation of what he thinks justice is. And as _Joe moves towards its final act, the question becomes whether ot not Joe will apply this same justice upon Wade. And if so, at what cost?
This heaviness is spelled out through character and action, not expository dialogue. A fan of hiring local, untrained talent as actors, Green makes his environments feel real, lived-in--as much a character as any of the actors. Not to diminish the actors. Tye Sheridan gives Gary just the right amount of anger and just enough youthful optimism to make clear what kind of tragedies potentially await him. Likewise, Gary Poulter tempers Wade's awfulness with the emotional and physical ravages that can only come from a life lived as hard as his character's.
But it's the environment that gives _Joe _a glimmers of hope; new life receives the nourishment it needs to thrive, both figuratively and literally.
As an animal trainer, you know as well as anyone that both nature and nurture play a role in the choices we (or any animal) make. But it's getting the chance to make those choices for ourselves that's important.