My Name Is Joe
British director Ken Loach revisits the crumbling Glasgow ghettos of 1998's Carla's Song for another hard-nosed, superbly acted look at proletariat life on the brink. This time, the existence under Loach's unflinching gaze is that of Joe (Mullan), a sprightly out-of-work painter who does indeed introduce himself in the words of the title. However, it's the eight-syllable confession that follows that ignites the saga's crackling tension and burns its way into his every move: “... and I am an alcoholic.”
Ten months sober with the help of A.A., Joe is stitching his life back together. He coaches a losing football team of pasty misfits (played by real out-of-work Glasgewians) and is even pursuing a wee love with a tender-hearted health worker named Sarah (Goodall). Though Joe's is clearly an existence of rediscovered hope, it's also one of gossamer fragility. This point becomes dramatically clear when he reaches out to a teammate (McKay), an on-the-mend junkie, only to get sucked into the leg-breaking underworld of the city's drug trade.
Mullan, seen most recently in Fairytale - A True Story, and earlier, in Loach's Riff-Raff and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, rightly nabbed a Best Actor prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival for the role. Mixing puckishness with perseverance, Mullan's Joe is the counterpoint to Nick Nolte's denial-addled drunk in the recent Affliction. Through a glistening eye or impish half-smile, Mullan commands waves of empathy as a man who lives his life all too aware that he's wasted much of it. Still, when the plot grows darker, so does Mullen, and the result - the slow snuffing of his happy-go-lucky glimmer - makes for a portrait that's both achingly intimate and deftly complex.
Goodall also turns in an affecting performance as love-interest Sarah. Her relationship with Mullan's Joe unfolds sweetly and tentatively, and with her shy laugh and ordered life, it's easy to see she represents what-could-be for the sobered-up Scotsman. However, the script skimps on its supporting characters, and while early scenes hint that Sarah, too, harbors some hesitations about love, the film never pursues these obvious conflicts with any depth. A tad self-righteous to boot, Sarah sadly settles into just another long-suffering woman.
Meanwhile, the melodrama is as thick as these lads' burrs (subtitles, gratefully, are provided), and several scenes, most notably the film's feverish climax, careen beyond the realm of credulity. Resonating through all of this, of course, are echoes of Loach's well-established leftist bent. However, unlike his earlier work, the political undertones never usurp the earnest, heart-felt emotion of these blokes' struggles.
Indeed, as to be expected from cinema's most dogged chronicler of the working-class scrapper, Loach never buffs the grittiness of his tale with sermons or sentimentality. Poignant and powerful, the director's latest isn't your average Joe.