Joe isn’t the first film to satirize Middle America’s reaction to the 1960s counter-culture (Wild in the Streets got there first by a year), but it is one of the more political incisive. Normally when you see a movie advertised as being from the director of Rocky and the writer of Saturday Night Fever, it doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence. Joe is fantastic though, a snapshot of the political, economic and social divisons that were starting to fragment American society in 1969.
It deals with a young middle class woman, played by Susan Sarandon in one of her first roles, who rejects the values and lifestyle of her bourgeois parents and decides to embrace the counter-culture by living with her artist boyfriend. Unfortunately he’s also a drug user and dealer, so her parents are understandably upset. After she overdoses her father, Bill Compton (the always dependable Dennis Patrick), goes to pick up her stuff from their apartment and when the two men get into an argument Bill accidentally kills him. Panicking he makes it look like a robbery gone wrong and goes to a local bar in need of a drink. Here he encounters Joe played by Peter Boyle.
One of the things I’ve never been able to understand is how Peter Boyle never won an Oscar. For those of you who’ve only seen him in Everybody loves Raymond he’s a revelation here. A low paid factory worker, Joe is the living embodiment of Nixon’s “Silent majority”. He’s angry about how America is changing but doesn’t know what to do about it, so spends his time in bars drinking and ranting.
Bill accidentally admits to him that he’s killed a Hippie but immediately tries to pass it off as a joke. When Joe later sees the reports of the murder on TV it doesn’t take him long to put two and two together. He’s contacts Bill at his office, but instead of blackmail he congratulates him and the two form an unlikely friendship. They hang-out, drink and gripe about the state of the modern world. The Compton’s even go to Joe’s home to have dinner with him and his wife. The film plays these scenes as comedy, satirizing the differences between their white and blue-collar lives and aspirations.
Things takes a darker turn though when the Compton’s daughter discovers what her father has done and runs away from home to live on the streets. Bill and Joe go looking for her leading them into a violent confrontation with the people and values they claim to despise so much.
The film makes no attempt to whitewash Joe or his views; he’s sexist, homophobic and a bigot as demonstrated in his introductory speech. Unfortunately I suspect he was also channelling the views of quite a few of the audience at the time. In fact his monologues were so popular that they were released as a spoken-word album, “Joe Speaks”. Apparently it was a huge hit with college students who’d memorize whole chunks of dialogue and then chant along with it, much as they’d later do with Monty Python recordings. While slightly bizarre this does underline the brilliance of the dialogue. As Joe observes when talking about President Nixon, “If you can’t trust the President, who can you trust”?
The true genius of the film though lies in how it neatly skewers middle America’s hypocrisy. Bill and Joe both repeatedly mock free love as being degenerate, yet when they accidentally end up at a party and are offered the opportunity to indulge in drugs and extra-marital sex they quickly change their tune. However the film doesn’t let the Hippies off the hook either. The ones on display here lie, cheat and steal. They also have no qualms about exploiting and then abandoning their female friends in order to make a quick buck.
I’d be extremely surprised if the creators of Death Wish and Falling Down hadn’t seen Joe at some point, as both films cover similar territory. While Joe does have its problems, for instance the ending is a bit too pat and the theme song is really irritating, it does make the point that the divisions between classes probably isn’t as significant as the divisions between generations and values. As the gap between so-called Conservative and Liberal America seems to be increasing once again, this is a good time to revisit Joe.
Here is the trailer for Joe (some swearing and nudity):