Dead-End Drunk

My Name Is Joe

Among movie genres, the recovering-alcoholic flick is as much a slave to its conventions as the romantic comedy. It must feature a tale of hitting bottom, an ever-shaky new relationship, a relapse, and a drunken rant. So why do people keep making these films?

The alkie movie typically comes from earnest and intelligent filmmakers who — no matter their skill — find themselves stuck in the many requisite clichés; you simply can’t tackle the subject without them. Ken Loach’s fine, raw My Name Is Joe is richer than most movies of its type, but the formula just has too much baggage.

Joe (Peter Mullan) has been on the wagon for 10 months, having hopped on after assaulting his girlfriend one day in a boozed rage. He’s unemployed but enjoys coaching a soccer team of delinquents, a sorry lot of rowdy kids. He falls in love with a health counselor, Sarah (Louise Goodall), and things are going splendidly. She has accepted his alcoholism with unblinking understanding, and she seems just what Joe needs, until — and there must always be an until — one of his players, Liam (David McKay), gets in trouble with a local drug dealer, McGowan. It wasn’t even Liam’s fault, and Joe intervenes. But the only way he can save the kid from bodily harm is to volunteer to do a couple jobs for McGowan.

When Sarah finds out, of course, she’s livid. Joe protests that he didn’t have a choice, but he did; he just wasn’t willing to be selfish and consider it. Now he’s left with two unappealing options: stop working for McGowan and endanger his and Liam’s lives for the mere possibility of getting Sarah back, or continue his dangerous path knowing that she’s lost.

To this point, My Name Is Joe is a rote if well-written (by Paul Laverty) and -acted drama. And then it distinguishes itself with a wrenching, redeeming climax. The movie had been about Joe and Sarah, but when the sky starts to crumble, Joe and Liam are left alone in the elder’s grungy apartment, Joe drunk and derisive, Liam panicked. What happens in that apartment, with McGowan’s boys coming for payback, re-focuses the entire movie on choice, sacrifice, and consequence.

On closer inspection, Laverty and Loach (well-respected for turning his camera on social ills) are clearly saying that poverty leaves people with no real opportunities, only paths with similarly bad ends. But the rather obvious message never forces itself, instead letting the well-drawn characters and story tease it out slowly and subtly.

The ending leaves the audience with a glimmer of hope, a stiff, burning shot of loss, and the heavy burden of much work ahead. It’s a fitting coda, and certainly not out-of-place. But, unintentionally and unfortunately, it underscores the central theme of My Name Is Joe: Loach had no real options, because all movies about recovering drunks must end this way.

Leave a comment