Review: The Last Rites of Joe May


[Note: This review originally ran during coverage for the Chicago International Film Festival. It is being re-posted to coincide with the film’s Video On Demand release.]

It’s a hard life being a hustler; the money’s never consistent, people are always working against you, and you can only get what you can give. For most hustlers, though, they scrounge for enough to make it through another day. Eventually, those days turn into weeks into months and into years. Before they know it, they’re in their wonder years, wondering where the time’s gone. More importantly, they must evaluate their lives and figure out what’s really important, hopefully before it’s too late.

The Last Rites of Joe May
Director: Joe Maggio
Release Dates: VOD October 28, New York November 4, Chicago November 25
Rating: TBD

The Last Rites of Joe May stars one such hustler, the eponymous Joe May (Dennis Farina), as he adjusts to a changed life following a seven week hospital incapacitation. Thought to be dead by his landlord, Joe’s apartment was sold to a single mother, Jenny (Jamie Anne Allman), and her young daughter, Angelina (Meredith Droeger). With nowhere to go, Joe reluctantly agrees to stay with the small family until he can get back on his feet, which involves an implied connection to The Outfit and his (in)ability to hustle goods. However, he is inextricably tied into the girls’ lives when Jenny’s crooked detective boyfriend, Stan (Ian Barford), grows increasingly abusive. Clinging on to dated standards of what defines a man, Joe attempts to protect Jenny and Angelina, despite his inability to right his own wrongs.

I honestly don’t know if something’s in the air, but there’s been an in flux of older male redemption films recently. However, without naming names, The Last Rites of Joe May is the best of the bunch. A large reason is Farina’s turn as the protagonist. Known for playing tough-assed characters, Farina was seemingly born to bring Joe May to life. Joe’s from a gone generation where your exterior image should always hide your interior problems, and because of this, his life has ultimately run into shambles as he spent the majority of his time waiting for that one gig that would elevate him to greatness. However, his personal relationships were strained along the way on his pursuit for selfish fame, leaving him to wallow in his loneliness and detachment from his place in the world. Simply put, Joe is a product of his environment and a time that has long since past.

However, it’s this old-fashioned lifestyle that drives him to protect Jenny and Angelina from Stan’s abuse. As is typical with most films set in Chicago, the corrupt cop plot is used. Honestly, it’s a schtick that’s been overdone and isn’t really surprising. Really, the duality of a man sworn to serve and protect the public while living a private life counter to that is all but a cliche these days. However, in the framework of The Last Rites of Joe May, it works, as Stan’s “modern” male lifestyle is a direct contrast to Joe’s “old” male lifestyle.

The two female leads do wonderful jobs, and the chemistry they each share with Farina help drive the film along. Honestly, the subplot between Jenny and Stan eventually directly intersects with Joe’s, but again, it’s the typical abusive, yet symbiotic relationship that’s grown stale in films. Despite that, writer/director Joe Maggio perfectly portrays Joe and, through extension, life in Chicago. 

I think what attracts us to such films is the desperation that drives the characters, as well as the actors portraying them. While we may not always appreciate or like the neatly-tied ending, we can’t help but cheer on a character willing to find redemption for their life, regardless of age. While some may look at The Last Rites of Joe May as a collection of genre cliches, others may look at it as being an exemplary entry with Farina’s role helping to elevate it above such trappings.