My Name Is Joe (United Kingdom, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Movie-goers attend Ken Loach movies for a variety of reasons, but one of them is not to have a "feel good" experience. The reason? Loach consistently looks at believable characters in realistic situations. His pictures are not escapist; they're frequently grim and sometimes downright depressing. They're about the trials and tribulations of those who engage in backbreaking labor on a daily basis trying to scrape enough together to put bread on the table. They're about men and women trapped by poverty and a social system that doesn't care whether they live or die. And they're about the sometimes-tragic consequences of the actions some people take in a vain attempt to liberate themselves from their circumstances. (A few titles: Riff-Raff, Raining Stones, Ladybird Ladybird, and Land and Freedom.)

My Name Is Joe is Ken Loach's latest, and, in some ways his most accessible. The film is not a relentless downer. In fact, the first half is filled with quiet optimism and a fair amount of character-related humor. There's a little romance, some banter between friends, and a feeling that the absence of money doesn't equate to an absence of hope. But it's a fragile balance that cannot last, and, before the movie's end credits roll, there will be violence, tragedy, and an unpleasant dose of reality for an affable lead character. The movie is set in Glasgow, Scotland, where the accents are occasionally impenetrable. In a rare move, Artisan Entertainment has elected to subtitle My Name Is Joe, even though every word is spoken in English. (This is actually the second time a Loach film has received this treatment - Riff-Raff was subtitled for the same reason.) Those who have trouble with thick accents will be thankful for this aid, and those who don't like subtitles can ignore them and still have a reasonable chance of figuring out what's going on.

As the title suggests, the name of the main character is Joe - Joe Kavanagh, to be precise. Joe is a recovering alcoholic who has been on the wagon for ten months. A believer in the 12-step program, he attends AA meetings regularly where he speaks his mantra: "My name is Joe and I'm an alcoholic." Actor Peter Mullan, who plays Joe, gives a tremendously natural, Oscar-caliber performance. His Joe is a boisterous, likable fellow - the kind of guy we all wish could be our neighbor. It doesn't take long for us to warm to Joe, and this strong character identification deepens the poignancy of the film's final third. Mullan is certainly not a household name, but he has had small parts in a few high-profile films, such as Braveheart and Trainspotting, and his exposure here will hopefully give his career a boost.

Joe is the coach of a perennially inept soccer team, and, although he acts as a father-figure to all of the young men, he has taken a special interest in Liam (David McKay), a former drug dealer who is trying to walk the straight-and-narrow. Liam has a heroin-addicted wife, Sabine (Anne-Marie Kennedy), and a 4-year old son, and his financial situation is hopeless. Sabine's habit has put him deep in debt to a local mobster, McGowan (David Hayman), and, if he can't pay, he has two choices: let McGowan pimp Sabine or get both of his legs broken. Meanwhile, Joe has become involved with Liam and Sabine's health visitor, Sarah (Louise Goodall). Although she resists his initial advances, Joe's reckless charm eventually wins her over, but dark times loom ahead.

My Name Is Joe contains three standout scenes. The first takes place in a bowling alley, and shows Joe and Sarah knocking down pins while "Spirit in the Sky" plays on the soundtrack. Because of the quality of the acting, it's an unusually effective montage. In less than two minutes, Loach perfectly conveys the mix of uncertainty and growing affection that defines many fledgling relationships. Much later in the movie, Joe and Sarah become involved in an intense confrontation, and, again, it's the acting (combined with uncommonly intelligent dialogue) that elevates this sequence to a higher level. Finally, there's a heartbreaking exchange between Joe and Liam that, while perhaps inevitable given the circumstances, is difficult to watch.

Although addiction is a key element of My Name Is Joe, the movie is not as much about substance abuse as it is about accepting the consequences of one's actions. In seeking to atone for his past misdeeds, Joe tries to save another man, but ends up confronting the reality that, instead of curing the situation, he may be doing additional damage. More than anyone, the alcoholic should recognize the importance of individual responsibility to the healing process, but Joe is so caught up in his role as savior that he loses track of this harsh truth. The dilemma he eventually faces, a moral conundrum where each alternative is worse than the next, is only unsolvable for someone who believes he can take another's burdens upon himself. To Loach's credit, he doesn't offer any easy answers to difficult questions, and, unlike in a Hollywood production, things don't necessarily work out for the best. The greatest strength of My Name Is Joe is the sense of stark reality. The humor and tragedy are presented without a whiff of melodrama, and the movie will leave almost any viewer with a sense of disquiet. If the definition of a great film is a picture with two memorable scenes and no bad ones, then My Name Is Joe unquestionably makes the cut.

My Name Is Joe (United Kingdom, 1998)

Director: Ken Loach
Cast: Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, David McKay, Anne-Marie Kennedy, David Hayman, Gary Lewis
Screenplay: Paul Laverty
Cinematography: Barry Ackroyd
Music: George Fenton
U.S. Distributor: Artisan Entertainment
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 1999-01-22
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Drugs, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: In English with English subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1