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Review: Joe (1970)

Joe (1970)

Directed by: John G. Avildsen

Premise: A wealthy businessman (Dennis Patrick) confronts the drug dealer that led his daughter astray. After he accidentally kills the junkie, the father makes friends with a violent and drunken factory worker (Peter Boyle) who wants to kill hippies.

What Works: In the early 1970s the conflict between the counterculture movement and the establishment was at its peak. The infamous Kent State shootings, in which anti-Vietnam War protesters were shot by National Guardsman, were followed by the Hard Hat Riot in which construction workers attacked anti-war demonstrators. That same year, Arville Douglas Garland went on a shooting rampage in which he murdered several college students, including his own daughter, and during his trial Garland received many letters of support from those who saw him as avenging what they saw as the country’s descent into decadence. While this was going on, Hollywood had become interested in movies that spoke to the youth market and reflected the malcontentedness of the time such as Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy, and The French Connection. It was in this maelstrom of cultural and artistic forces that Joe was conceived and released. In 1970 the movie was startling in the way that it tapped into the zeitgeist and in 2016 the film has become relevant once again. Joe was a part of what are sometimes called “white backlash” films which also include titles like Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver. Joe has a lot going on in it and the movie is a sophisticated portrayal of white male identity crashing into the complexities of the modern world. Dennis Patrick plays Bill, the father to a wayward daughter (Susan Sarandon, in her first screen role) who has fallen in with a drug dealer. She’s hospitalized after an overdose and Bill confronts her daughter’s boyfriend, inadvertently killing him. Bill then confesses his crime to Joe, a violent, bigoted drunk played by Peter Boyle. Joe leans on Bill, admiring what he’s done and uses it as leverage to force Bill into a friendship. Joe distinguishes itself from other “white backlash” titles with its complex characters. This film was made by young filmmakers and it portrays what was probably terrifying to them: an older generation that was prepared to resort to violence to crush their revolution. But while that is certainly true of this movie, Joe is a complex portrayal of these men as they descend into violence. Bill and Joe have an uneasy relationship; they come from different socio-economic strata and have different regard for violence. But there is also a shared tension of both lust and disgust with the freedom of the love generation that eventually becomes a combustible combination.

What Doesn’t: Like a lot of movies of this type from this era, the ending of Joe is abrupt. The quick finale is part of the film’s impact; the lack of a denouement leaves the audience shaken and that conclusion is consistent with the tone of the picture. But that ambiguous ending also leaves some of the story elements unresolved, especially the relationship between Bill and Joe. Also, like a lot of films of its day, Joe is morally ambiguous. Most movies being made today, especially mainstream entertainment, go through every effort to make the lead characters sympathetic, often to the point of purging them of complexity. The characters of Joe run the gamut from troublesome to odious. The film isn’t really about Joe; it’s about Bill and his conflicted feelings about his daughter and the hatred and anger stemming from his middle aged envy of youth. That doesn’t leave the audience with a movie that’s satisfying in the way of a conventional narrative. But the filmmaker’s unwillingness to make the movie easily accessible is exactly what makes it so powerful. 

DVD extras: Trailer.

Bottom Line: Joe is an important title from its time that is also extremely well made. The movie’s portrayal of white male backlash is frightening in its volatility but it’s also a complex character study of two men lashing out a changing world.

Episode: #587 (March 20, 2016)