Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green
Written by Diana Ossana, Larry McMurty
Starring Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller, Connie Britton, Gary Sinise
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom…You never know what is enough until you know what is more than enough.” ~ William Blake
Joe Bell is an average working man with a family in small-town Oregon. Families know one another, and you could probably sleep with your door unlocked at night. When communities are that tightly knit, they tend to have different ideas about how life is perceived, not considering those who might be different.
Mark Wahlberg plays the namesake character in his own story, about a man who walks across the country talking to groups who will listen to his message about how wrong bullying is and in the name of his son, Jadin (Reid Miller.) Based on a true story, Bell, a very hardened man, seeks to find his path to enlightenment.
The story, written by Diana Ossana and Larry McMurty, the Academy Award-winning duo behind “Brokeback Mountain” aim to bring the same strength to “Joe Bell” that they displayed with “Brokeback Mountain.”
Using a series of flashbacks, director Reinaldo Marcus Green, who won the Sundance Special Jury Award for Outstanding First Feature with his 2018 film “Monsters and Men,” puts us square in Joe Bell’s shoes as he treks from Oregon eastward toward New York City on foot as we learn about his family, specifically Jaiden, his gay son. The story doesn’t flirt with the idea that the Bell home is unhappy or that Joe and wife Lola (Connie Britton) would reject their son.
It is Jaiden (Reid Miller) himself who feels threatened and misunderstood by his classmates, leaving him to feel helpless and a set of parents vulnerable to put him in a better place. If anything, although Bell is accepting, he does not understand what someone Jaiden’s age must be feeling.
The hazing by the football team is a prime example of a situation where Jaiden might have been able to take his dad’s advice and stand up for himself. That isn’t who Jaiden is; he’s a lover seeking the concrete jungles of New York City, a place where, with endless options, he can be himself.
While Miller gives an outstanding performance and Britton does a beautiful job with being the reserved wife trying to get her husband to comprehend what their son’s life might be like, Wahlberg gives a committed, if indifferent, performance to his role as Joe Bell.
While I appreciate what Wahlberg brings to the story, he plays the character as “rough and tumble,” trying to teach his sons to defend themselves, to be able to stand tall and proud. There are several moments in the film where Wahlberg breaks down, and it is heartening to see him realize the impact his life’s decisions have on his family.
Gary Sinise has a cameo in the film as a Sheriff cum priest. No, he’s not ordained, but the two share a moment that Green and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret captured beautifully. Realization sets in that we have the power to recognize our sins, to change and grow. Instead, we’re too focused on the moment to realize that others need us when they are at their lowest.
Those too-few moments dot “Joe Bell” that show appreciation for the road we travel.
“Joe Bell” misses the mark editorially. A far-too lean 93 minutes, the story feels devoid of empathy and full of reflection on a supposed road to redemption. We don’t feel sympathy for Bell, even for his noble cause, because the story doesn’t allow Bell’s voice to be heard, opting for moments of his speaking engagements before we’re off again.
There is a discomfort in the film too between Joe and Lola. Couples argue, sure. However, they come back together if the foundation of the relationship is strong enough. Perhaps the intention of looking in the mirror was for Joe Bell to reflect on his life. There are moments in the trailer that didn’t make it into the final film, and had they been included, the film would have had more meaning.
Instead, “Joe Bell” stares aimlessly into a mirror, and it neglects the true meaning of redemption, trading it for reflectiveness.
R, 93 minutes, Roadside Attractions