The opening night attraction of the 2011 Chicago International Film Festival, “The Last Rites of Joe May,” is a shot-in-Chicago Steppenwolf production with Chicago acting mainstay Dennis Farina at its heart, but it’s a small film with a small heart set in a cold, cold Chicago winter. Redemption, like spring, is an elusive thing in the Windy City. The enervated protagonist is Joe May (Farina), an anachronistic, elderly street hustler with bad luck that would stymie even a much, much younger man. (In interviews, Farina has said the script was set in Brooklyn, but was transplanted at his insistence; a slice of D’Amato’s pizza sealed the deal.) The light is gloomy, the settings sepulchral, the mood rises to the funereal. There’s a single mom, a keening child, bills owed. And so on. And so forth. The gray-blue light lets a few locations shine through, including Archie’s Iowa & Rockwell Tavern, which Farina arrives at from a bus he picks up near Western and Division, which takes him to Aberdeen and Lake, where he walks over an expressway bridge to walk west on North Avenue past Milwaukee. No wonder Joe’s cold. No wonder Joe’s tired. No wonder Joe’s confused. That topographical mayhem, so far removed from the inspired work of urban pictorialists like Michael Mann or Andy Davis, is keen metaphor for the story’s rote complications. Farina works hard to keep Joe’s battered dignity intact, and he has a handful of quietly measured moments. There’s a splendid shot of Grand Avenue at mango-black sunset by Betty’s Blue Star Lounge, and the dingy, battered poison-green stairwell to Joe’s hovel is ideally cast, as is Chicago in fog by night: there’s a place I’d like to go to get lost. Oh yeah: and did you ever see a pair of old tennis shoes tossed up to twine over a power line with an American flag perfectly poised in the background? Yeah, me too. With Gary Cole, Jamie Anne Allman, Ian Barford, Meredith Droeger, Chelcie Ross, Rich Komenich and, in the role of “Hipster,” Billy Dec. 108m. (Ray Pride)
“The Last Rites of Joe May” opens Friday at Siskel.
Ray Pride is Newcity film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming. Previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/RayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)