5 out of 5 stars
Few films are as moving as John Avildsen’s 1970 classic depiction of the white backlash, ‘Joe.’ While offering an unflinching glimpse into opposing American cultures of the late 1960s/ 1970, ‘Joe’ poses questions of morality, ethics, diversity, hatred and friendship among many others. One of the strongest qualities of ‘Joe’ is that it breaks the rules and creates a totally unique story. Released in 1970, this film is a perfect example of the drastic change in cinema that was taking place at that time. A new, younger set of filmmakers were taking chances with subject matter and offering more brutally honest depictions of controversial characters and situations. This era of film offered numerous critically acclaimed box office hits, while retaining artistic dignity, creative ingenuity and vision in regards to each work as a whole. Films like ‘Joe’ couldn’t have been made before the 1970s; they were too controversial, too blunt in their messages, but neither could they be made today. American cinema of the 1970s is a time capsule for a dead era, forgotten by all those who weren’t alive to ‘live it.’
For this reason alone, people like myself, who weren’t around when these classics were first seen by audiences, and couldn’t walk out of the theatre into the dawning of a phantasmagoric society, must hold these works as scripture, as an encyclopedic documentation of the past and a peregrine race that no longer roams the urban warrens or hills. Try to imagine a remake of ‘Joe?’ Who would be cast instead of Peter Boyle? Would it be Philip Seymour Hoffman? These questions are best left to the intellectual thug of present day. A remake of ‘Joe’ wouldn’t be relevant any longer in the same terms; race issues are no longer the booming issue they once were, and our youth, though daft in their own right, aren’t the cultural abomination they once were to society of the 1960s/70s.
‘Joe’ is a film that, like some malevolent volcano rumbles before exploding into a chaotic spray of magma, of hatred, of violence. This is a piece that sets the groundwork for pressure to continually build, piling layer upon layer of discomfort and angst. While the release of these components might be vulgar or ugly, one cannot help but stare, transfixed by the horror that unfolds with surprising yet simple, pristine beauty. I liken the ending of ‘Joe’ to one gazing into the blaze of a burning civilization, with detached somberness and sadistic hunger. Like ‘Tracks’ (1977), ‘The Gambler’ (1974), ‘WUSA’ (1970) or ‘The Day Of The Locust’ (1975) which offer startlingly savage endings, accommodating for any dull moments during the film, ‘Joe’ shares a similarity, like a drawn out hellish nightmare, or an atonement for everything seen as base. I sometimes find that great films can possess boring or even ‘bad’ scenes, ones necessary to propel the plot, yet offer no real cinematic merit. But it’s the dazzling sequences that are so powerful and moving that, in retrospect one immediately decrees a film to ‘5 star’ status despite its weaker moments. I thrive upon scenes like these in film and have attempted to keep a mental catalogue of them in hopes of creating a series of some kind; the ending of ‘Joe’ is of course vital to this list.
Friendship is a strong theme throughout ‘Joe,’ and is the basis of Joe and Bill’s relationship. They have a friendship based upon commonalities, feeling underappreciated, disrespected and generally powerless in the face of changing times. The beauty of the union between these two men is that though they haunt very opposing worlds, their plight is the same, their beliefs alike, and both find themselves relics in a youngster’s world. It takes the accidental murder of Bill’s daughter’s boyfriend, a loathsome junkie pusher, to bring these two men together one fateful night. Upon first meeting it’s clear that Bill, a well compensated executive in the advertising industry is skeptical that he and Joe could maintain a relationship, but both come to realize that the bonds of masculinity run deeper than the clothes one wears, where one lives, or the size of one’s pocketbook.
The men get drunk, showing each other their favorite drinking holes and poking fun at the faux classicism that would normally spurn the bonding of men like Bill and Joe. At the urinal Bill makes a joke that he can’t lift his penis because the doctor told him ‘nothing over ten pounds’ and they both laugh and urinate beside each other, sharing ‘one of the simple joys in life.’ This scene drips with realism; there is nothing phony nor constructed about an interaction of that kind, and in my opinion is a genius inclusion in the film’s narrative. But is Bill and Joe’s friendship a good thing? Like any maniacal or murderous duo, one can only imagine the results if they had only never met. Yet somehow we, the audience can smile and laugh at the drunken antics of these men, and then gawk as they slay in the name of America, the free.
Peter Boyle plays the title role of Joe, the anti-hero, opinionated, hateful, stubborn and misogynistic, but thoroughly complex. But one must look at the roots of Joe’s bigotry to understand him as a character. He is bitter, but only because he feels that his lot in life is much too meager, his lavish lifestyle stolen from him and dispersed amongst the poorer classes, the blacks, the welfare recipients. Joe went to war for his country, he fought and killed in the name of America, so that he and his kin might reap the fruits of a free society.
He works in a factory and toils day in and out for a pitiful hourly wage, and to Joe, that is entirely respectable. The blue-collar class is the pulp of America. Look closely into each star upon the American flag and you’ll find the visage of weary, sweat stained faces, putting in the hours, operating the machinery, and standing in the production lines that produce the American dream. It is a hard life, one with a slight pay off when compared to the physical and psychological ache one expends working for a living, ingesting and imbibing the fruits of hard labor. Joe has hatred, rightfully so, but perhaps his feelings are displaced, perhaps not, that is an issue for each man to decide on his own, and a topic that rests directly in the pompous heart of politics, which I don’t care to discuss on this site.
The intriguing part of Joe’s character is that men like him are a reality, even today. They possess similar ideals and hold like altruisms, even if they’re mostly self-interested. But a society is built upon various types and the character of ‘Joe’ is an ancient one, an American through and through. He is a pawn of the system, and happy to be such, but he is far from a stupid man. Joe deducted that Bill Compton was the killer, and he hunted him down, not to blackmail Compton, but to shake his hand. It is true that Joe could’ve amassed quite a sum from Bill, but his heart was generally pure, and seeing this new man as a friend or a hero dissuaded him from blackmail. I’m not proclaiming Joe Curran as some type of saint, but merely exposing the complexity of his character, because he isn’t an entirely loathsome creature if understood.
One of my favorite aspects of ‘Joe’ is that it defies classification at every turn. Watching the film for the first time, I was discouraged that I may’ve been beginning another ‘junkie’ film with an easily predictable plot and the same series of highs and lows that all films about drug addicted couples share. Luckily, ‘Joe’ breaks the rules, and like Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho,’ we are given a sizable, jarring twist in the narrative flow, transforming the piece into something entirely different.
I’ve had similar concerns when watching this film with others, always worried that perhaps they had accepted that they were in store for yet another heroin movie; I hoped that my guest viewers gave the film enough of a chance to reach the real meaty weight. The true plot of the film unfolds with the first appearance of Peter Boyle as Joe Curran. Even from that point, the plot still continued to leave me guessing, and never disappointed. What ‘Joe’ shows is gritty, and rough, unflinching in its depiction of reality, yet mildly glorifying in its violence. While Avildsen utilized a variety of techniques in creating ‘Joe’ (And some more skillful than others; for example the fact that Frank the dealer’s murder would be front page news is highly unlikely) we never doubt the realism of what we’re seeing for a second. John Avildsen went on to direct ‘Rocky’ and ‘The Karate Kid,’ two films that might as well be comedies in comparison to this frightening period piece. But that isn’t to say ‘Joe’ doesn’t possess scenes of humor; they are in fact laced throughout the entire framework of the tale.
The shining achievement of ‘Joe’ is its complex message that shies away from simplicity. Initially, we may all condemn Joe as some hateful bigot, but as I’ve mentioned before, his character, though outwardly appearing relatively simple, is a multi faceted statement about disenchantment, angst, desire and the American dream. We’ve reached an era in society that allows films such as ‘Joe’ to become relevant once again. With the left wing political party in reign, backlash from right wing citizens is something that can be expected, and though the issues of today might differ from those of Joe’s time, the actions of men like him can be just as rancorous. It is a shame that middle aged, blue-collar men like Joe feel alienated by the youth, but does that ever justify vigilante style execution? I read that the character of Archie Bunker from ‘All In The Family’ was based upon Joe Curran.
It’s interesting to me that a character so opinionated and outwardly abrasive would seem fitting for the star of any sitcom. While it’s clear that Joe’s stronger beliefs were toned down for ‘All In The Family’ one can still identify the same ideals when watching the sitcom, and for me it’s somewhat disturbing. I’ve seen many episodes of ‘All In The Family’ and am quite familiar with the character of ‘Archie Bunker,’ but somehow my whole conception of him has changed after comparing him to Joe Curran. I can now imagine that behind every comical encounter lies the bloodlust to kill, for what’s seen as right, stolen or lost.
I would recommend ‘Joe’ to fans of 1970s American cinema. Few films pack quite a whirling punch as this 1970 piece, and though it might seem somewhat dated, I implore all who watch ‘Joe’ to attempt to translate its message into present day circumstances and allow its realism to drift them into a seething sect of society that really does exist. Joe is an every day man that you might pass on the street, returning home, toting his lunch box, unaware to all that within his burly frame hides the notion to kill for what’s his, a former soldier, a devout countryman, a repressed American. The depictions of unglamorous characters and situations is part of what made the 1970s so fresh and startling, that combined with the beautiful grittiness of the piece has chiseled a nook in the hall of classics for ‘Joe.’ I’m always searching for my next favorite movie, and while I’ve seen other films like ‘Joe’ none have been quite so poignant while unexpected. The film is like a drunken tirade, a nightmare in which you awaken the next morning to the confusion and horror of what you might’ve done the night before. For all of these reasons and more, ‘Joe’ is perhaps my favorite film that I’ve discussed on this blog, and wholly deserving of its 5 star rating.