The Last Rites of Joe May (2011)
By Paul Cogley
We meet Joe May as he is being released from a stay at Cook County Hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Once outside, Joe learns that life in his small corner of the West Side of Chicago has gone right on without him. Wherever he goes, he hears the same thing: “Joe May! I thought you were dead!”
In a very short time, Joe finds himself without an apartment or a car. Or, for that matter, a best friend, since his buddy Billy (Chelcie Ross) entered a senior home and wants nothing to do with life on the outside. Joe becomes another of the aging homeless men spending nights on a bus bench.
Dennis Farina gives a stunning performance as the sixty-something Joe May, a washed-up, smalltime hustler who will get one last chance to make something of his life.
That last chance comes from Jenny Rapp (Jamie Anne Allman) and her seven-year-old daughter, Angelina (Meredith Droeger). They have recently moved into the apartment that was Joe’s home for 40 years. Finding Joe on a bench on a cold winter night, Jenny takes pity on him and invites him to stay the night.
While I was watching that scene I thought how unlikely it was for a single woman in her position to take such a risk with a virtual stranger. However, as the movie later reveals, Jenny has a pattern of putting herself in risky situations with men without learning the lessons she needs to learn.
Joe and Jenny become friends. No romance develops. In fact, when Jenny asks Joe for a hug in a crisis moment, Joe simply says, “That wouldn’t be a good idea.” End of subject.
Joe’s relationship with the seven-year-old daughter Angelina grows significantly. Joe’s most endearing trait is keeping pigeon coops on the roof of the apartment building. The care of the pigeons becomes a natural bonding activity for an old man and young girl.
Joe Maggio, who wrote and directed The Last Rite of Joe May layered symbolism and metaphors throughout the film’s screenplay. One would be the girl’s name, Angelina. She is indeed like an angel who Joe can share his passion for pigeons with and learn to become her protector.
Another metaphor would be Joe’s pigeons, which are meaningful to Joe in a way similar to the pigeons that Marlon Brando tended as the longshoreman Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. Both stories are in essence stories about redemption and justice. In Waterfront Terry was a confused hustler who was transformed into a self-sacrificing protector champion. In The Last Rites of Joe May, we will see Joe transform from a confused hustler as he faces a similar challenge.
That challenge comes from the presence of Stanley Buczkowski (Ian Barford), Jenny’s stalking, abusive boyfriend, who is also a bad cop.
The movie relies a bit too much on overly-familiar cinematic techniques in order to build up the sense of tension needed for the finale. Nevertheless, I was satisfied it lived up to its title. The Last Rite of Joe May is, on many levels, a deeply moving movie.
*The Last Rites of Joe May has adult content, including strong language and violence.