Dry Drunk's Drama

Twelve steps up and two steps back: Peter Mullan in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe

My Name Is Joe
Lagoon Cinema, starts Friday

Ken Loach knows that people have to work for a living. He also knows that sometimes they don't get to work for a living--and that sometimes this is partly their fault. A die-hard leftist with a strong dash of style, Loach likes that dramatic intersection at the corner of Will and Suppression. He looks for accidents to happen there, where ambition collides with limitation, and he reports on the survivors.

Loach's commitment to political viewpoint has kept him in a long but pigeonholed career as a fiction/documentary apologist for the downtrodden. He has dealt with Nicaragua (Carla's Song), Northern Ireland (Hidden Agenda), and the Spanish Civil War (Land and Freedom), but, for the most part, the 62-year-old filmmaker has stuck with Britain's strugglers--those with thick accents, bad addresses, and (often) poor judgment. Loach sees these people as not quite noble but certainly worthy of examination as protagonists. And his antagonists are typically found in government or in larger social forces.

On the surface, My Name Is Joe is off-the-shelf Loach: An unemployed, working-class Glasgow charmer (Peter Mullan) in his late 30s keeps a smile on his face but holds worries in his heart. He's ten months off the booze that ruined many years, and he's the earnest coach of a losing soccer team, many of whose players seem bent on his old path. Like anyone finally and newly converted, he's trying extra hard to do right this time. Apart from an early AA meeting where Joe reveals his spirit to fellow alcoholics, there's no apparent story in this material until Joe Kavanagh's beat-up soccer van nearly collides with a tiny compact driven by a public health nurse named Sarah Downie (Louise Goodall). This may be a meet-cute moment, but it's hardly You've Got Mail.

Since Loach's turf is the social-problem film, he's prey to all the built-in risks of that genre--especially to making the message too obvious and the characters mere stand-ins for ideas. He meets this challenge with a firm command of style, as Joe contains editing as snappy as anything you'd see in a box-office smash. The acting is equally strong: Mullan has the uncorked energy of Steve McQueen, and Goodall's vulnerable/confident performance conveys depths of back-story that aren't explained in the script. The nurse-who-needs-help and the reformed-drunk-who-offers-it make almost too obvious a contrast to accept, but these actors are more than up to the challenge of giving the parts life.

Beyond Joe and Sarah's tiptoe romance, however, Loach's movie has other issues to explore, and while these extra conflicts manage to give the plot some direction, they seem far removed from the neorealist, slice-of-life tone that Loach is hoping for. The reason Joe meets Sarah in the first place is that he and she are driving to the same apartment house; Sarah is checking up on the child of her ex-junkie clients Sabine and Liam, and Joe is picking Liam up for a game. As things unfold, it turns out Liam had cleaned up in prison but Sabine had picked up his drug dealing and also his old heroin habit. Now the couple owes £2,000 to a dealer named McGowan, and McGowan means business.

This is where Loach's ability to put cinematic spin on serious issues can trip him up. He doesn't interrupt the plot to give a single character a policy speech (as Bulworth did, for instance), but he does rely more than is necessary on cliché and coincidence when the drug-debt subplot shows up. McGowan (David Hayman) is a bull-necked thug with stereotypical goons standing by and--wouldn't you know it?--he's a childhood mate of Joe's. As Joe tries to satisfy McGowan's demands in order to save his young friends, the impassioned editing and narrative pace turn into a sequence of coincidences that dilute the drama into formula. Melodramatic twists of plot pop up with such regularity that I half-expected someone to be tied to railroad tracks.

To its credit, though, My Name Is Joe is also about the shaggy, unpredictable, painful parts of life. Joe is clearly flawed, as much as a mythic king in an ancient epic. And while his behavior is a textbook demonstration of the "dry drunk" (someone who retains his irresponsibility while trying to replace booze with principle), he is also--thanks to Mullan's nonstop earnestness--a very particular one. As a character, Joe survives the plot twists around him and even the story's abrupt ending, because, as a person, he is someone worth following and fretting about.

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