On Blu-ray: Peter Boyle in Joe (1970)


As the title character of Joe (1970) Peter Boyle spits out a stream of bigoted patter that would have come as a shock a couple of years ago. Now it is a familiar fact of life, an unpleasant reminder that hatred may go into hiding, but never fully fades away. While some of the issues it explores are relevant to today, this gritty, bleak drama is very much of its time, a sort of farewell to a turbulent era. Now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films, it is a surprisingly good-looking film despite its brutal feel.

Boyle plays an angry factory worker who hates black people, hippies, drugs, and youth culture. While drunkenly spouting off at a bar, he meets Bill (Dennis Patrick), an advertising executive who has killed his daughter’s drug-dealing, junkie boyfriend in a fit of rage. Delighted to meet a man who has fulfilled his dreams of murdering hippies, Joe attaches himself to the frightened executive, finding common ground in their hatred and clashing uncomfortably on just about every other level.

They drink together, have an awkward dinner party with their wives, and go on a scornful tour of hippie-dom where they don’t mind enjoying the attentions of a couple of free-love endorsing women. Adding to the discomfort is that Bill’s strung-out daughter (Susan Sarandon in her first film role) is the same age as these women and living the supposed hippy lifestyle he protests, while enjoying the benefits of the looser morals it inspires. There’s always a feeling of dread when these two are together, but it is Joe who generates the most fear. Bill has already killed, but you always have the feeling that Joe, encouraged by his friend’s perfect crime, could do a lot worse.

Much like the shocking rock documentary Gimme Shelter (1970), released the same year, Joe feels like a sort of death knell for the free-loving, experimental aspects of the sixties. All the hippies are burned out and the establishment remains intact, and ever more determined to maintain control.

It is a grimy, bummer of a story, and so it is astonishing how beautiful it can look. In a film made for a washed out palette, colors are instead often vibrant and sometimes dreamily beautiful. The landscape is bleak, but somehow something pleasing comes out of it.

Boyle plays a repulsive character, but he is true to himself and entirely lacking in pretension. It is likely that these qualities, in addition to his giving voice to views that were becoming unpopular, but remained strongly-held by many, contributed to the heroic image he had among fans of the film, a worship that horrified Boyle, who was repulsed by the man he played.

While for the most part compelling, in the end Joe’s message loses its subtlety. It circles back on previous conversations in a way that would almost be risible if it weren’t so gut-wrenchingly sad. What remains is the feeling that the party has ended, drugs aren’t fun anymore, and not much has changed.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

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