Politics make for strange bedfellows. You can see it right now. The ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency was built upon an alliance between a racist, nationalist base and the affluent business sector. These political blocs don’t have overlapping interests in a traditional sense, but they’ve forged this bond over a single candidate – in this particular case one that stoke the flames of racial intolerance while advocating policies that enrich the wealthy. This isn’t a singular phenomenon, and, coincidentally, one that was forged decades ago under another corrupt president with authoritarian tendencies, Richard Milhous Nixon.
That shaky alliance between business interests and a racist, nationalist base was the subject of the 1970 film from director John G. Avildsen and screenwriter Norman Wexler with Joe. The film, which is very much a product of its time, arrives on Blu-ray in a new edition from Olive Films, and it’s timing simply couldn’t be better. As political pundits ponder just how these two voting blocs could intersect, Joe clearly illustrates in its own dramatic way how this seemingly disparate forms of political identity can form under one umbrella.
Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick) is a titan of industry, working hard in his high-rise office and pulling in quite a hefty salary. On the home front, though, things aren’t so smooth. Bill’s daughter Melissa (Susan Sarandon) has fallen into the hippy lifestyle and descended into the darkness of addiction while living with her junky boyfriend Frank (Patrick McDermott). When Melissa is hospitalized following an overdose, Bill goes to Frank’s decrepit apartment to confront the hippy dope fiend and in the ensuing melee winds up killing him.
In shock, Bill goes into a local bar to have a drink as he contemplates his actions. In there he encounters Joe (Peter Boyle), a blue-collar worker with overtly racist attitudes, as he complains about the hippies protesting and black people moving into his neighborhood. The rant that Joe has when he’s first introduced wouldn’t seem too out of place at Trump rally, complete with blatant racial epithets at maximum volume. It’s in this chance encounter where Joe buys the shaken Bill a drink that an unusual friendship is formed that will change the lives of both men.
Joe is open about his desire to violently lash out against those who rile him, namely black people and hippies. It’s when Joe reads about a killed hippy drug dealer that he’s able to put two and two together. Joe retains Bill’s murderous secret and the two forge an unusual and shaky alliance, one that eventually leads to a professional windfall for the blue-collar Joe. The brash and crude manner in which Joe speaks is greatly different from the measured, calculating way that Bill carries himself, but their united in their hatred of hippies and what they see as the unabated decline of the America they grew up in.
In a way, Joe and Bill are right about the changing face of America, just not in the way that they expect. The union job that Joe has that provides him with a decent but unglamorous life will soon go by the wayside. Even though they believe in Nixon, his paranoia and corruption will bring down his presidency and shatter the public’s faith in American institutions. The hippies will become yuppies before becoming the core demographic for Fox News. And those hippy kids will become just like their parents, backing a corrupt and paranoid politician under the misguided notion that a single politician can restore the country that they grew up in – all built on an alliance between avowed racists and wealthy conservatives.
The aspects of vigilantism that are featured at the end of Joe are almost like a tease for what will follow in a few short years with Taxi Driver, which also co-starred Peter Boyle. Audiences who cheered for Joe’s displays of violence greatly unnerved Boyle, and swore him off taking violent roles in the future. The New York City of Joe is a city on the verge of its darkest hour, and screenwriter Norman Wexler was able to tap into that grittiness of New York’s streets in this film as well as his subsequent films, Serpico and Saturday Night Fever. Where Joe is an American tragedy set amongst social decay, director John G. Avildsen would tap into a similar vein for his greatest triumph, Rocky, which earned him an Academy Award for directing.
Joe is an imperfect movie with a number of lulls but it features one hell of an ending, a real kick in the gut. Despite the fact that plenty of people misinterpreted the film and believed Joe to be hero (he’s not), that’s not on the filmmakers in this case. They’re crystal clear in establishing that Joe is a troubled mind and Bill entering into this union will carry with it grave consequences. 1970 was nearly half a century a go and yet the cinematic art of that era still is relevant to the political landscape of today. As Joe illustrates oh so painfully, the line between protection and destruction is a very fine one, and sometimes you end up destroying that precious thing that you thought you were protecting.