My Name Is Joe
US theatrical: 20 Nov 1998
My Name is Joe should be remembered for a few things. It’s touching story. The stalwart direction of Ken Loach. The cold, dark, and straight-forward visual palette befitting its blue collar central character. Most of all, though, it should be remembered for Peter Mullan’s tragic turn as the titular Joe.
Mullan embodies Joe and all of his contradictory traits from the get go. The film begins with an AA meeting where Joe is recounting his story to the group. He starts by discussing his initial feelings of denial regarding his condition, and as an audience we’re not sure where we are just yet. As he comes around to reality, so do we. He pushes past his denial into admission without much of a reason for the transition, and we realize he’s in a meeting talking to people just like him.
It’s a tough scene setting up an undeniably tough film. Joe has been off the sauce for 10 months, but he still hangs out with an unsavory crew—consistently stealing and causing trouble. He’s still prone to random outbursts of anger, a trait that becomes all the more unsettling when we learn what he’s done when drunk. Basically, he’s unstable and—on paper—hard to root for as a protagonist.
Mullan infuses Joe with a vibrant, unabashed personality. He owns his errors, foibles, and attributes with the same swagger. It’s not until Joe meets Sarah that his secrets start to come out. Sarah, like so many once-in-a-lifetime-loves, brings out the best in Joe, and he is the best he can be just for her. Thanks to a well-crafted script by Loach’s long time collaborator Paul Laverty and the focused eye of Loach himself, the unveiling of Joe is something to behold.
It doesn’t feel too common either, especially coming from the independent movie boom of the late 90s. It’s a truly personal story, a specialty of Loach. What truly impresses about the director is his ability to produce story after story with similar themes, styles, and techniques while still making each new picture unique. It certainly helps that he’s got an eye for choosing talented leading lads.
His eye for detail also doesn’t hurt. Loach understands the smallest moments in a movie are just as vital to its success as the larger ones. When Joe first has dinner with Sarah, there’s a glass of red wine sitting in front of him. He acts naturally when he’s got Sarah sitting across from him as a distraction, but you can see Joe’s inner panic the moment she leaves the room. It’s a brief moment—especially when compared to what comes next—but it’s not unimportant, and Loach doesn’t treat it that way.
It’s a fitting note for the movie as well. My Name is Joe wasn’t a massive success, but it gets every detail right and thus creates a rewarding experience for the lucky viewer savvy enough to find it.