It’s frustrating to watch a movie that seems so unable to get out of its own way—all the more so because this is one of the last collaborations between the Oscar-winning screenwriting team of Diane Ossining and Larry McMurtry. Their classic drama “Brokeback Mountain,” likewise about sexual repression and persecution in the American heartland, now feels like a past-tense companion piece to “Joe Bell.” That attitudes don’t seemed to have changed much since Jack and Ennis had to hide their love away is a tragedy of another sort, and it’s touched upon in a scene at a gay bar where Joe has an awkward conversation with a drag performer, and a middle-aged gay man sitting across from Joe tells him that the social advances of the 21st century never left major cities.
Another source of frustration is Mark Wahlberg’s monotonous, at times listless performance, which would negatively impact the film even if the actor didn’t enter it carrying baggage similar to that of the bullies that drove Jadin to his death. As a Boston teenager in the ’80s, Wahlberg committed an array of hate crimes, and although he has made gestures in the direction of atoning for them—including apologizing to one of his victims and receiving forgiveness, and petitioning the governor of Massachusetts to have his records expunged—skeptics said it was too little, too late, and speculated that it was impelled by the Wahlberg family’s financial self-interest as owners of a chain of burger restaurants. “Joe Bell” does not appear to have been a direct response to a suggestion by the aforementioned forgiver that Wahlberg do a film warning against the evils of bigotry, although in that case, the suggestion was that Wahlberg’s character be a racist rather than a homophobe (not that there’s never any crossover).
Straining for a sort of epic naturalism, steely eyes flinching at the words of other characters as if they’d struck him with an open hand, Wahlberg seems to be going for something in the vein of Heath Ledger in “Brokeback,” Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper,” and Clint Eastwood in, well, anything. He does not, as they say, have the range. Wahlberg stares into the middle distance with narrowed eyes, pushes a wagon filled with minimal provisions along dusty farm roads throughout the flat northern states, and sometimes bursts into tears of sorrow at Jadin’s memory, but he’s badly outclassed by his costars, particularly Connie Britton as Joe’s wife, Lola; Reid Miller as Jadin; Maxwell Jenkins as Joe, Jr., who would rather have his dad at home than out on the highway making a spectacle of himself; and Gary Sinise, who comes in at the end in a small but important role, and is so smashingly effective at communicating the pain of a reactionary man stumbling towards decency that you might imagine the film with Sinise as Joe. Sinise is too old to play the real Joe (who was 45 when he lost his son), but he has a gift for universalizing politically coded “heartland” characters that might otherwise seem as if they’re pandering.