Wexler and Avildsen rushed to revamp their film to sync with current events. Just as important, they realized they had struck gold with Boyle, a gifted comedic actor who could also turn on the menace. Boyle’s Joe, with his over-the-top vulgarity and dark, mischievous eyes, stole the movie, from the title on down. Sarandon later admitted as much: “They saw that they had a godsend in Peter Boyle and they re-edited it to emphasize him.”
Joe is initially drawn to Compton because the businessman has dared to do what Joe can only talk about: kill a hippie, or at least a junkie, in a scene that makes the most of psychedelic effects right out of drug exploitation movies like “The Trip.” But the businessman and the workingman find other reasons to envy each other as well. Joe is wowed by Compton’s salary (“The president of my union pays himself that kind of money!”). Later, Compton tells his wife that he envies Joe’s rough edges and directness: “I wouldn’t mind letting him sit in on one of our creative sessions, and let him tell everybody what a bunch of windbags they are.” And they both hate what those crazy youngsters are doing to the country. As Joe tells Compton during the film’s bloody climax, “You hate them as much as I do.”
Where the killers of the counterculture in “Easy Rider” were presented as redneck yokels, “Joe” gives us city-dwellers from opposite sides of the class divide. Before the film’s final carnage, Joe and Compton take a swing through the East Village in a quest to find Compton’s daughter. Shot on location, “Joe” takes us into the seedy New York that would reach its filmic apotheosis six years later in “Taxi Driver” (also about vigilantism, and also featuring Boyle in a smaller though pivotal role). At one point, Joe and Compton pop into a head shop to ask the proprietor if he has seen the missing girl. Joe gazes at a poster of a smiling Richard Nixon, emblazoned with the words, “Would you buy a used car from this man?” Joe is aghast. “Look at that,” he says. “The President of the United States. If you can’t buy a used car from him, who can you buy a used car from?” Together, the well-heeled Compton and the aggrieved Joe form the ideal snapshot of Nixon’s base. “After all,” as Geoff Pevere writes in the Toronto Star, “Joe was really a card-carrying member of Nixon’s cunningly designated primary constituency, that ‘silent majority’ of decent Americans—hardhats among them—who were fed up to here with all the craziness and liberal laxity corrupting their once great country.”
None of this prepares us for the film’s bloody denouement. Joe and Compton’s journey through the hippie underworld leads them to a group of druggies, who are happy to partake of the stash Compton stole after he beat the dealer to death. Joe and Compton, in turn, take part in an “or-gy” (Joe pronounces it with a hard “g”), indulging, as so many do, in that which they fear, loathe, and desire the most. Having tasted the forbidden fruit, Joe and Compton discover the druggies have stolen their wallets. With a selection of Joe’s guns in tow—“I got what you might call a well-balanced gun collection, see?”—Joe and Compton track the thieves to a country commune, where they massacre everyone. Unbeknownst to Compton, the final victim, who he shoots in the back, is his missing daughter, captured in a chilling freeze frame as she falls to the ground.