Case in point: the plainly labeled My Name Is Joe. A deceptively simple take on survival in the brick slums of Glasgow, it chronicles the tribulations of Joe Kavanagh (Peter Mullan), a badly damaged alcoholic in his late thirties who's been off the sauce for almost a year. Jobless and on the dole, Joe throws his energies into coaching a soccer team of wisecracking delinquents who are a lot more adept at stealing new uniforms than they are at actually playing the game. Joe's special project (and alter ego) is baby-faced Liam (David McKay), who's not merely the only decent player on the team but also an ex-junkie and a young father. Another opportunity for Joe's redemption comes in the form of Sarah (Louise Goodall), a plucky public-health counselor whose neighborhood clinic is overwhelmed by needy clients.
In the hands of a filmmaker with a lesser feeling for character and place, elements such as these might quickly turn to mush. But Loach is neither a handwringer nor a do-gooder, and no one will mistake him for a Pollyanna. In Joe, Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty give us an imperfect hero who, despite the odds, refuses to feel sorry for himself -- this guy simply presses on into the darkness. Long-time Loach fans will likely find in Joe a hint of the filmmaker's earlier protagonists, notably the unlucky bloke in 1991's Riff Raff -- downtrodden but working hard to shed his seamy past.
Joe, too, has reasonable dreams. A decent job. Self-respect. Relief from the demons. A shot at love. For now, though, he has only his wits to buoy him up -- a gift for the well-timed practical joke, a knowledge of the street, and a survivor's will. Herding his scruffy soccer players -- they have names like Shanks and Scrag and Zulu -- into a beat-up van, he very nearly looks happy. The team never wins a game on their desolate, glass-strewn pitch, but for Joe the battle is almost reward enough: He has a wry smile -- and a black joke -- for everyone in his makeshift family.
As usual Loach gets all the physical details right. The dim light in the bowling alley where Joe takes Sarah on a tentative first date. The ill-fitting suit and self-important gait of a welfare bureaucrat snooping around the neighborhood for petty violations. The weary faces in the waiting room of Sarah's clinic. The gray-green haze overhanging the tables in the snooker parlor where we first meet slimy McGowan (David Hayman), the predatory drug dealer who will eventually wreck several lives. American movie directors like Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese have such a sure feel for the underside of big cities that you can practically smell the booze and taste the blood every time they take a camera into the street. Loach is just as masterful. This portrait of Glasgow, rooted in poverty, with desperation rapping at the door, wants for nothing in terms of grit and authenticity.
Mullan, who popped up briefly in Braveheart, Trainspotting, and a pair of earlier Loach movies, seems exactly the right actor here. He bears an odd facial resemblance to a young Red Buttons, but there the similarities end: In Joe's athletic, hair-trigger jumpiness, we see a boozehound still expelling the old poisons, and in his growing devotion to Sarah, we get the unmistakable sense of a decent man who's wasted his prime but now sees one last chance to make good. It can't have been easy to keep this tough-and-tender portrait upright and schmaltz-free, but Mullan manages it, with help from his clear-eyed director. Witness the wonderfully telling scene in which Joe and a buddy, posing as old hands in the design trade, propose to wallpaper an oddly shaped sitting room for new friend Sarah. Joe's combination of sweetness, cunning, and mischief as he finesses the job just about defines him.
The thing we don't know is how far he will stick out his neck for a boy whose bad luck and lousy choices must remind him of his own. A Ken Loach movie can be a screamingly funny experience, particularly when we're least expecting to crack up. But his lifelong quest, as he once described it, "to clarify the lives of ordinary people" usually veers into tragedy, too. Loach never fears to confront the cold realities of life.
By the way, try not to be put off by the subtitles. That's right, subtitles. On the surface Scotland and America would appear to share a common language, but the sound of English as spoken in the working-class districts of Glasgow can present a stiff challenge on this side of the Atlantic. Five minutes into the movie, most Yanks will be glad for a little help at the bottom of the screen.
Otherwise we're on our own to contemplate another extraordinary piece of work from one of the world's most underrated moviemakers -- a film at once harsh and tender and almost faultless in the way it sheds light on a time and a place and a troubled soul.
My Name Is Joe.
Directed by Ken Loach. Written by Paul Laverty. Starring Peter Mullan, Louise Goodall, David McKay, and David Hayman.