Joe was very much a product of its time, when the bloom was off the rose of the youth movement, and the public's cheerful fascination with hippies had turned sour in the wake of the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Manson Family murders, and the shooting of students by the National Guard at Kent State University. While Joe took a hard look at hatred of the counterculture in blue-collar America, it offered just as jaundiced a look at where the hippie movement had gone wrong in the previous four years. More than a few of the film's hippies (most notably Patrick McDermott as the drug dealer murdered in the film's first act) are scam artists who get their money and kicks from taking fellow longhairs and curious straights for a ride, while the few well-meaning ones seem too ineffectual to accomplish anything. On the other side of the fence, Joe (as played by Peter Boyle) seems on paper to be a hippie's worst nightmare, a reactionary bigot with plenty of guns and the willingness to use them. But Boyle's performance makes him into something richer; Boyle brings a vivid anger to Joe's tirades that's truly frightening, but he also finds humor in Joe's pathetic ignorance, and, in the rare moments in which we see the narrow boundaries of Joe's life creep up on him, Boyle even generates sympathy for the man. The compelling performance makes both the character (often sketchy on the surface) and the film (inconsistently paced and not always effective when Boyle is off-screen) into something far more substantial than it would have been otherwise; in Boyle's hands, Joe Curran is neither a cardboard villain nor the hard-hat you love to hate, but a human being, and his humanity makes his violent and hateful nature all the more ugly.
by Mark Deming review