Joe Maggio’s earnest character study The Last Rites of Joe May lacks the frayed desperation of The Friends of Eddie Coyle or the palpable generational rage of Gran Torino, the film’s two primary cinematic influences. But the genius casting of Dennis Farina as the titular character makes all the difference, elevating this sometimes pedestrian drama about aging and redemption to unexpected dramatic heights. Like many films centered on grizzled old-timers confronting evil in the changing world around them, The Last Rites of Joe May has a certain classic western feel to it. This quality can be found in the film’s measured pacing, the clear-cut evil of its villain, and the stoic compositions that range from epic long shots framing Joe as a lonely urban wanderer to the suffocating close-ups where he ponders his fate in silence.
The Last Rites of Joe May relies heavily on Farina’s wrinkled face to coast through a familiar coming-of-old-age story, especially in the opening scenes. Just released from a seven-week hospital stay due to a life-threatening bout of pneumonia, Joe returns to civilization and finds best friend Billy (Chelcie Ross) in a retirement home and his domicile of 40 years rented by a single mother, Jenny (Jamie Anne Rallman). Every aspect of Joe’s life has been uprooted and gutted, the world as a whole seemingly leaving him behind in a matter moments. Even many of his closest friends thought he died in the hospital. Pissed off at everyone and everything, Joe grumbles obscenities under his breath and walks the street looking for low-level hustles, further spinning his merry-go-round of denial. Joe’s self-indulgent bubble is permanently and expectedly broken when Jenny offers him a place to stay, linking their fates for the duration.
Joe becomes a fatherly figure for Jenny and a grandfather-type charmer with her adorable daughter, Angelina (Meredith Droeger), advising them both during times of doubt. These character-driven moments allow Farina’s face to brighten, revealing a layer of warmth underneath the gruff façade. But despite his emotional awakening, Joe still clings to his old ways, attempting to reconnect with a gangster (Gary Cole) who clearly doesn’t respect the old man’s professional groveling. This backsliding attitude backfires for Joe, who emotes an increasingly worrisome attitude toward life that puts an added burden on the people he cares for most.
Throughout The Last Rites of Joe May, these central conflicts of purpose and identity quickly evolve into something far more nuanced, forcing Joe to confront the crippling delusions and self-entitlement fantasies he relates to past failures. His evolution as a selfless figure comes full circles when he confronts Jenny’s abusive policeman boyfriend, Stan (Ian Barford), a raging ape of a man whose more a symbol than a character. While the film’s do-the-right-thing finale is about as transparent as they come, it still holds weight thanks to Farina’s striking poise under pressure.
Despite some glaring dips into formulaic territory, The Last Rites of Joe May offers center stage to a great performer who’s made a career of playing supporting tough guys. Watching Farina dominate every scene is a joy, and thankfully the actor makes the most of this opportunity. Maggio is smart enough to give his forceful star the wiggle room he needs to find the balance of spite and tenderness in between the obvious dialogue sequences. The film’s title may spell out the last act, but Maggio at least lets the other characters imagine the specific words written on Joe’s gravestone epitaph. If it were up to me, mine would read: Here lies Joe May, a wounded and worthless nobody who decided to become somebody worthwhile.