Ken Loach, born in 1936, has been called "Britain's last crusading leftist film director." "Leftist" the director of such movies as Kes, Poor Cow, and Raining Stones certainly is; "crusading," though usually in a restrained way, as well. Not in any sense "last," though; rather, in some ways, first and foremost. Decidedly My Name Is Joe, though not flawless, proves him a major talent.
The title is unfortunate, doubly so because it invites being mistaken for Meet Joe Black, a recent elephantine flop. Like all of Loach's work, it is naturalistic on the surface, but with such sympathy for its characters, such insight into their small victories and not so small defeats, as to hold us spellbound from start to finish. A film able to imply so much more than it says, combining humor, heartache, mellowness, and drama (and only near the end some unfortunate melodrama), goes way beyond naturalism to the mysterious essence of our mundane yet extraordinary lives.
This is the story of Joe Kavanagh, an unemployed recovering alcoholic on the dole in Glasgow. The public-housing neighborhood he lives in (all cheerless cement), like his humble apartment, is more universal than Glaswegian -- the realm of precarious survival. Joe has a friendly relationship with the parole officer in charge of him, who will even lend him some money. He has overcome ten years of booze with as many months of abstinence, and still counting. His one, alas unpaid, employment is coaching a hopeless neighborhood soccer team, sanguine in their bedraggled uniforms.
Joe is also responsible for chauffeuring his raggedy bunch to the playing field, though they are incapable even of giving him uncontradictory directions to their destination. And once the game starts, after considerable argument, some members of McGowan's drug-dealing gang show up and brutally work over one of the players. This is Joe's good friend Liam, who became addicted to the stuff he was peddling for them. Jailed, he incurred a further debt to the gang when Sabine, the mother of his child, took over for him, and appropriated the heroin she was hustling. Now the gang wants her to hustle her body for them, which Liam, out of jail, wishes to prevent.
Bleak, you say. Yes, but there is relief. Under amusing circumstances, Joe and his pals run into Sarah, a children's social worker whose apartment desperately needs wallpapering. Joe and a buddy hire out to do the job for her, even though the unemployed fellow is not allowed clandestine perquisites, and neither guy has ever put up so much as a poster. The scenes that follow are hilarious.
The job starts a friendship between Joe and Sarah that quickly develops into an affair. Since both he and she are insecure persons -- he because of his alcoholic past when beating up his girlfriend queered him with the law, she because of her basic unsexiness -- their movements toward each other are touchingly awkward, groping, overeager. They depend partly on chance, but more so on a basic decency that each discerns in the other. Another linking factor is that Sarah is the social worker assigned to Scott, the small child of Liam and Sabine, a family group for whom the kindly Joe involves himself in grave danger.
Where it all goes from there, I urge you to find out for yourself. But let me say that no one blends the harsh and the winsome better than Loach. Thus on a perilous drug-running mission that Joe undertakes for Liam in the Lake District, he waits for his contact while bemusedly discussing a second-rate bag- pipe player entertaining tourists with a measly repertory of three tunes. That little exchange, with a bored young female vendor in a nearby kiosk, perfectly encapsulates life's absurdities. Or take the moment when Joe and Sarah, to whom he has confessed his battering of that ex-girlfriend, have a quarrel in turn. In a scene almost unbearably sad and beautiful, Sarah asks quietly, "Are you going to hit me, too, Joe?"
Let's not forget the incisive scenario by Paul Laverty, the subdued but telling cinematography of Barry Ackroyd, and the flavorous music of George Fenton. Hail, above all, to the luminous acting of Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, and their impeccable supporting cast. The climactic action scenes are not entirely convincing, but the minor-key ending is perfect for a film that captures with understated poignancy both the sublime and the all-too-human.
The novelist Russell Banks and the filmmaker Paul Schrader are a match made in both Heaven and Hell. It is a perfect marriage -- not of Heaven and Hell, which I leave to William Blake -- but of Banks and Schrader, whose vision of bleakness and torment, of snow on the ground and frost in the soul, yields in Affliction a frozen panorama of human beings struggling to melt an iceberg by breathing on it.
Wade Whitehouse is the sole policeman in a small, generally crimeless but dying New Hampshire town; his chief duty is as crossing guard. Emblematically, he exercises this function by assuming the posture of crucifixion. Schrader is not only one of our rare cerebral directors, he is also that even rarer thing, an implicitly religious filmmaker, and a Puritan at that. So this quasi-Calvinist film, in which the Damocles' sword of predestination is passed down from fathers to sons, but indirectly affects also the lives of their women, exudes cheerlessness like invisibly spreading ink. The snow in Affliction is really black.
Wade has twice married and been divorced by Lillian, and can regain no sympathy from her or their young daughter, Jill, whom he smothers with desperate, clumsy affection. He would mar- ry his devoted waitress girlfriend Margie merely for a better chance to get custody of Jill in a (probably hopeless) lawsuit. Meanwhile a visiting dignitary is killed in a hunting accident, and Wade tries to pin the murder on his good friend Jack, who was the hunter's guide. In the process, Wade loses his job -- to Jack.
Margie and Wade move in with Glen, Wade's old man, whose negligence has caused his wife's death, and who is drinking more self-destructively than ever. We see in flashbacks how Glen mocked and savaged his children, Wade and Rolfe, now a history professor at Boston University, who wrongly thinks he has escaped the family curse. In the present, we watch how Glen and Wade continue to hack away at each other.
The film is decently directed by Schrader, who has made Rolfe the narrator, but Willem Dafoe, with his turbid-oily voice, is hard on our ear, and, looking like death insufficiently warmed over, on our eye as well. Sissy Spacek's Margie and Mary Beth Hurt's (Mrs. Schrader's) Lillian are perfect as, respectively, guardian and avenging angels. James Coburn is powerful as the ferocious father whom Wade haplessly replicates. The end, predictably, is tragic.
As Wade, Nick Nolte is irrational, violent, pathetic, intensely annoying, and still manages to elicit heartfelt pity: There is an ingenuous boyishness under his mulish obstinacy and pugnacity. Through much of the story Wade suffers from a nasty toothache, which he impatiently ends by performing some painful dentistry on himself with a pair of pliers. Unfortunately, the movie practices similar dentistry on us. Great tragedies, however inexorable, are cathartic for both protagonists and audiences. Here, however, we are sucked into the thrashings of a trapped animal, unrelieved by so much as blank verse.
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