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  • Benjamin May

Joe (1970) Review

Bill Compton is a wealthy, conservative advertising executive who would be living the traditional American dream were it not for one thing: his daughter is a hippie. She and her boyfriend spend their days doing drugs and wasting time. After she overdoses, Compton accidentally kills the boyfriend in a fit of rage. Later he meets Joe, an ultra-right-wing blue-collar worker, and drunkenly tells the man his murderous secret. Joe believes he's found a kindred spirit in Compton and the two form an unlikely friendship. However, Joe's virulent hatred for anything and anyone liberal makes both men's lives increasingly complicated, violent and dangerous.

Directed by John G. Avildsen, 'Joe' is a character study and a drama about evolving cultural mores, highlighting the ideological schism that emerged between generations following the counter-culture revolution of the 60's. Norman Wexler's screenplay is sharp and full of fantastic, grittily realistic dialogue. It is unhampered by bias, scathing of both old school conservatism and the 'free love' attitude of the hippie movement alike- not to mention political extremism and classism. While the story contains moments of violence and can be a tad melodramatic from time to time, at its' heart it's a clever, subtle examination of two multi-faceted, realistic characters.

Compton and Joe are disillusioned by a society in which they no longer feel comfortable. As many were at the time, they are threatened by the hedonistic lifestyle the youth of the film embody. However, they are also strangely attracted to it. Compton and Joe want to partake in the 'free love' but can't allow themselves to because of their deeply held conservative beliefs. Thus, they are left out in the cold so to speak, and their violent reaction to their uncertain place in the 'modern' world seems like a foregone conclusion from the beginning of the film because of the strength of Wexler's characterization.

Having said that, the supporting characters are all a little hollow and underwritten in comparison to Compton and Joe, most notably Compton's daughter, played by Susan Sarandon in her big screen debut. She comes across like a parody of a hippie, the kind you'd see dancing in the background of a Peter Sellers' farce from the 60's- or perhaps even one of the 'Austin Powers' films. What makes it all the worse is the fact that Sarandon is completely stilted, wooden and lacking in charisma. Though in a few years she'd start giving the powerful, nuanced performances she's known for today, it's a wonder her awfully mediocre work in 'Joe' didn't derail her career just as it was beginning.

On the positive side of things, 'Joe' features an atmospheric original soundtrack from Bobby Scott that makes good use of songs from the likes of Exuma and Dean Michaels. Michaels 'Hey Joe' is particularly memorable, with lyrics reflecting the narrative beats of the film, as well as the ideology of the titular character. Besides directing, Avildsen also acted as cinematographer and his work has a naturalistic quality that is most affecting. The film is also very well-edited, having a brisk pace that makes Compton and Joe's journey to the dark side all the more exhilarating and frantic.

Dennis Patrick stars as Compton, delivering a performance of style and subtlety. Not as colorful or as openly bigoted as the titular character, Compton is nevertheless a complicated person with darkness in his soul, a man capable of extreme violence. Patrick couldn't have been better in the role, bringing to it much depth and intelligence. He makes Compton sympathetic- which is no mean feat considering the actions the character takes in the film- and he and co-star Peter Boyle work together marvelously.

Always a reliable actor, Boyle is brilliant as the bigoted blue-collar worker Joe. While not a likable character by any means, Boyle imbues Joe with a certain seedy charm and complexity that is intensely interesting and effective. He plays Joe as a regular man whose perception of reality is skewed by his political inclination, as one who can't see the truth from behind a blinding veil of conservative dogmatism. Boyle's assured performance is a joy to behold, and one can tell that he understood the character's motivations perfectly.

In short, John G. Avildsen's 'Joe' is a powerful and clever parable about bigotry, principles and violence boasting a fine Norman Wexler screenplay and a great soundtrack from Bobby Scott. Dennis Patrick and Peter Boyle deliver two fascinating, impactful performances of great depth and complexity that are highlights in both men's filmographies. Although the supporting characters are a little underwritten- and some questionably acted- 'Joe' is a terrific movie that has only gotten more relevant and entertaining with time.


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