Capturing the anger and confusion of a historical moment when the “generation gap” was at its widest—the dawn of the 1970s—Joe is an unquestionably powerful film. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good film. The narrative is awkward and contrived, the title character doesn’t make his entrance until the 27-minute mark, and the infamous ending is predicated on a silly plot twist. So to characterize Joe as an incendiary statement would be to overreach considerably. Nonetheless, there are good reasons why the picture enjoyed substantial box-office success during its original release, and why it has retained some degree of notoriety since then. Written by Norman Wexler, Joe is about a middle-aged New York ad executive named Bill Compton (Dennis Patrick), who has become estranged from his twentysomething daughter, Melissa (played by Susan Sarandon in her debut film appearance).
Living with a drug dealer in a grimy Greenwich Village flat, Melissa is a counterculture idealist who’s gotten dragged into her boyfriend’s dangerous world. When Melissa ends up hospitalized after an overdose, Bill tracks down and kills the boyfriend. Rattled after the crime, Bill stumbles into a dive bar where Joe Curran (Peter Boyle) is giving a drunken monologue blaming all of society’s problems on hippies and minorities (“Forty-two percent of all liberals are queer, that’s a fact!”). In one of the film’s least believable moments, Bill confesses his crime to Joe. Thus begins an unlikely odyssey during which Joe leverages the dirt he’s got on his new “friend” to force his way into Bill’s rarified world. Later, when Melissa flees from the hospital, Bill and Joe search for her in the drug underworld, a quest that culminates in an orgy where compliant hippie chicks service Bill and Joe while the ladies’ longhair boyfriends steal personal items from the “straights.” Revenge follows, as does tragic irony.
As directed by the capable John G. Avildsen, who found tremendous success a few years later with Rocky (1976), Joe is probably a better-made film than the sketchy storyline deserves. The acting is uniformly good, with Boyle the obvious standout as a lout given license by circumstance to manifest his latent psychosis, and Avildsen does a fine job of defining spaces, from the crisp perfection of Bill’s Central Park apartment to the dirty chaos of hippie flophouses. But the story simply doesn’t work as anything except cheap provocation. It’s never totally clear what Joe wants from Bill, or why Bill tolerates Joe’s threatening proximity, and the idea that these two men eventually form true friendship stretches credibility to the breaking point. Worse, the Melissa character exists merely as a set-up for the ending, which doesn’t resonate anywhere near as strongly as the filmmakers presumably hoped it might have.