Director: John G. Avildsen
Writer: Norman Wexler
Cinematographer: David Gil
Producer: John G. Avildsen
by Jon Cvack
A friend of mine announced on Facebook that he was going to host a "Divided America" film series, featuring some 70s classics that parallel this Trump Era. I actually met this guy through the Criterion Collection Facebook page back nearly 10 years ago when you could friend people you didn’t have any connections to. After ten years, we finally met in person at the film screening series in Los Angeles. He introduced the film perfectly in that it took on an eerie bell curve - once regarded as brutally accurate, then leveling off to seem aged (particularly under Obama), and is returning once again to its origins.
It’s a perfect follow up to any of the Vietnam era classics - Easy Rider (1969), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), or Midnight Cowboy (1969); depicting an intensely real side and stark side to life that I had never really seen before before getting into cinema. Joe's cover and synopsis makes the film appear about the central character Joe Compton and yet it opens up in a junkie’s house where a young hippie, Melissa (Susan Sarandon in one of her earliest roles; five years before Rocky Horror Picture Show), takes a bath when her deadbeat drug dealing boyfriend Frank Rizzo (Patrick McDermott) enters the apartment, anxious to shoot up.
Later, before Frank heads to a coffee shop to try and make some deals he gives Melissa a pill, which she takes and causes her to enter into a random bodega, grab some lipstick, draw it all over her face and then carome down the aisles, knocking everything she can find off the shelves. She wakes up in the hospital where we then meet her white collar parents, Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) and his wife Joan Compton (Audrey Caire). They learn of Frank and Bill heads back to Melissa’s apartment where a stoned Frank then returns. The two get into an argument and soon wrestle on the ground, culminating in Bill killing Frank and he then leaves the dead body behind.
Bill ends up at a local dive bar where the film’s title character, Joe (Peter Boyle), is in the middle of a drunken racist tirade, shouting every epithet in the book. It was this scene in particular which my friend highlighted; just but two years ago, this sort of screen would be too fantastical and old fashioned; impossible to exist in the Obama years. Now, in the Trump age, as countless viral videos have displayed similar heinous rants, this felt right on point. Caught up in Joe’s ideas about race, liberalism, and hippies, and still shocked over what he did, Bill admits he killed a hippie, piquing Joe’s interest.
From there the narrative shifts, and we follow Joe home, where his wife, Mary Lou (K Callan), preps mashed potatoes for dinner, and pops open a fresh beer for him. He tells her about his day and when she attempts to reciprocate, he ignores her, turning back to the tv, chowing down his Salisbury steak drenched in ketchup. He heads downstairs to his Man Cave where he keeps a collection of guns, pops a couple more beers, and cleans a handgun.
Days later, Joe sees a news report of what sounds like the murder. He calls up Bill at work to have him and Joan over for dinner at their house. Fearful that Joe is going to blackmail him, Bill accepts, and the two head over; providing a tale of two classes. Mary Lou serves the drink and plays the friendly host, serving them cheap drinks and canned nuts for an appetizer. However, when Mary Lou keeps ranting about the blinds and furnishing, an embarrassed Joe tells her to shut up; making things even more awkward. It’s a subtle point, but there’s a great revelation here about Joe and Mary Lou’s marriage; both ranting about things that people don’t care about as though they’re together because they had and have no one else.
Joe takes Bill down to see his gun collection, revealing rare - and illegal - pieces; some he got off his dead enemies during the war. Bill reads far more into it than Joe might mean, fearing the result of what could happen if Bill failed to live up to Joe’s demands.
Later, Joe and Bill head to a dive bar and learn about each other’s lives. Joe’s a union man making close to four dollars an hour while Bill is pulling in $60,000 per year. Joe continues with his rants against hippies, liberals, and blacks, quickly acquiring the admiration of Bill who’s dealing with the dangers first hand; coming full circle when Bill, a successful white collar guy, agrees and further legitimates Joe’s ideas. The night continues, and Joe brings Bill to one of his urbane and expensive bars where they meet one of his colleagues. Bill encourages Joe to put on an act as a new vice president coming into the company which Joe fully embraces; providing a brilliant complexity as I drifted between thinking it was a condescending prank against Joe, or that it provided Joe, who ate it up, a better insight into Bill’s superficial world.
Meanwhile, Melissa escapes from the hospital, heads home and overhears her father talk about the murder; fearful that she could be next, as yet another doomed hippie. She runs off once again, and it’s clear that this was likely a repeated situation before she ended up with Frank.
Bill calls up Joe in order to help him find his daughter; leaving us wondering if he wants Joe as a friend, or Joe as the gun carrying bigot who would be just crazy enough to combat another problem like Frank. So begins a sub-genre per the likes After Hours (1985) or The Hangover (2009). Long into the night they hunt Melissa down, first going to a bar where Bill brings a bag of hard drugs he stole from Frank. A group of hippies see them, bummed that father figures have crashed their place. They decide to mess with the pair, learn about the drugs and invite the pair back to an apartment they’re squatting in.
This has to be one of the first scenes featuring two old dudes breaking out of their shell to smoke some weed and join the “cool kids”, and somehow it goes further than most ever have. What begins as a friendly exploration of weed and shrooms (Joe takes the shrooms) quickly progresses into a explicit sex scene, as both Bill and Joe each sleep with one of the hippies, enjoying all the excitement and feeling that both being high and having sex with young attractive women in their prime could possibly offer. For a second, as dark as the movie had been, I thought perhaps that the film was aiming toward this - that both Bill and Joe would redeem themselves and see that hippies aren’t all that bad, and that they had it wrong all along.
But the scene goes even further, and while Bill enjoys himself, Joe struggles to pleasure his partner, getting more and more frustrated as the film cuts back to Bill who passes out. The men with the girls steal both the drugs and their wallets, leaving the women behind. When Joe wakes up, he grabs his empty pants, storms into the bedroom and strangles the woman, demanding to know where he can find the others; the strangulation goes on just a bit longer than you expect, and becoming all the more terrifying because of it. There was a distinct feeling of disappointment in this moment; as I realized that my hope for them to change didn’t just dwindle, but served to further legitimize their bigotry. It’s not just that they hate, but that they view those lives as worthless and expendable.
Up to the torture scene, the film follows and relatively dark comedic route, and immediately the tone shifts. Joe and Bill end up at a hippie commune in the middle of nowhere, where before going in, Joe pops open his trunk and grabs a couple rifles. Bill initially rejects the offer, then accepts, following Joe him inside, where Joe proceeds to shoot down and slaughter each of the hippies; whether they beg for their lives or not. Others appear and Joe commands Bill to help him take them down. As Bill knew with Frank, he knows that there’s no way any person could leave if he hopes to retain his life and freedom. Amidst the chaos, one girl runs out and Bill shoots her in the back; a freeze frame showing it’s Melissa.
The conclusion immediately recalls the cynicism of Easy Rider or Bonnie and Clyde; films that captured a deeply divided, post Civil Rights nation; seemingly never ending as Vietnam continued on and assassinations claimed a politician per year from JFK to John Lennon.
One of the questions discussed was why this film hadn’t been able to stand the test of time. There were a range of responses - from the fact that Joe’s rhetoric was too offensive, especially during Obama’s term; some so offended that they couldn’t see Joe as anything other than a subhuman; unworthy of any of their sympathies or understanding. It was this incapability of empathizing with Joe that made me most alarmed, as I struggle to think of any time in history when viewing a certain type of person as anything but subhuman has been followed by a healthy policy. The moment someone like Joe and others like him are seen as inferior, then his rights are limited per the law, and should an authority’s fear reach fever pitch, it’s easy to see how quickly the remaining rights would corrode.
What I saw was an ignorant man, who as a result of little education, was limited to thinking of grossly superficial reasons as to why his own life and the culture around him were so despicable. LBJ said it best, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” That quote alone sums of a large part of the bigotry in this country; if people are poor and can’t afford to educate themselves to escape their limitations, then it’s easier to have them believe gays, women, immigrants, or black people are responsible for their hardships rather than complex ideas about economics, history, or science.
Joe works a repetitive job at the mill, goes home to his equally uninteresting wife, drinks beer and plays with his guns. That’s his existence, which wouldn’t be a problem if he didn’t take his bigotry to the public and start spouting off. My empathy topped out when Bill invited him back to the yuppie bar in downtown. Joe’s eyes widen as he gets to be part of the upper class. He might have even seen Bill as an opportunity to get ahead. With the girl he murdered, I got a sense that if the girl offered to see him again, he might have forgotten all about his wallet; thrilled that someone interesting and attractive was into him.
Instead, his bigotry was corroborated by a petty theft; supporting all he ever feared and believed in. While either the girl or the job might have activated his passion, instead he was left with his guns and a complex situation he knew nothing about. The teens were drug addicts, failing to produce the change they attempted, and struggling to keep going with what they believed in. Instead he saw the obstacle standing in the way of his happiness. On the other hand, we see Bill pulled further to the right, succumbing to the temptation to kill what he doesn’t understand, rather than ignore it.
What Joe does so well and subtly is balance and provide reason to both sides. Frank is a deadbeat drug dealer who caused Bill’s daughter to overdose and the hippies did steal their money. It showed radicalization existing on the far left as well as the far right. As noble as the hippie’s intention might have been, they were now living in squalor, hooked on heroin, and stealing whatever they needed to maintain their petty existence. It didn’t warrant a mass slaughtering, but it doesn’t provide a clear cut divide between the good and evil.
The more the film settled, the more I saw how perfect Joe is for these times. The story is very much about a breaking point; where words suddenly change to action over some innocuous event. As the protests erupt on both sides, and violence grows (at the time of writing this, the all-male/white supremacist Proud Boys were caught on video battering some Antifa members who stole a MAGA hat), it feels almost inevitable that there will be a boiling point sometime soon; when one side no longer believes screaming at each other is enough and resorts to the next step. Given that we’re now knee deep in the Covid Lockdon and this same crowd is demanding the world reopen for them and their needs, the water might be beginning to bubble.
BELOW: The exact ending you expect from a politically charged 1970s flick
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