When I read the description of Good Joe Bell, which is playing this week at the Toronto International Film Festival, I found myself feeling that little twinge of dread in the back of my head. Based on a true story, the idea of Mark Wahlberg (who I do like as an actor) playing the role of a man who lost his son to suicide, then decides to walk across the country to bring awareness to gay rights and bullying, as something that could, let’s say, go amiss. At least, my concern was this could wind up being a movie that would be filled with rousing speeches and scenes ready-made to be submitted to the Academy Awards nominating committee. What’s remarkable about Good Joe Bell is Wahlberg plays the role in such a nuanced way, by the end of the movie you want that rousing speech. But it never comes.
Over the last five years, the only non-comedy Mark Wahlberg has starred in that wasn’t directed by Peter Berg is 2017’s All the Money in the World. Since 2013, Wahblerg and Berg have teamed up for four films, which started with the blockbuster Lone Survivor, then each after saw diminishing returns in box office and quality. (Though, I still think Wahlberg was terrific in Deepwater Horizon. Look, I get it, they like working together. But it was well past due for Wahlberg to try something different where he’s not just on cruise control. And Wahlberg finds that with Reinaldo Marcus Green’s Good Joe Bell (Wahlberg is also a producer).
Wahlberg plays the title character, as we meet he and his son, Jadin (Reid Miller), walking along the highway in some sort desperate attempt to raise awareness against bullying. I say “desperate” because Joe seems desperate. Even the conversations he has with his son early on in the film are just conversations with himself. Joe’s not delusional – when asked about his son he fully admits his son is dead – but, again, he’s desperate. He doesn’t even seem to know what this walk across the country is even supposed to accomplish, or if he’s doing the right thing being away from his wife and younger son, but he has to do something. People who know the real-life story know this story ends in heartbreak, so it’s not a movie that follows the beats a viewer might be expecting. The movie feels unstructured, but in a way that represents what Joe is going through.
This might be the most understated performance of Wahlberg’s career. I kept waiting for the moment when he’d unleash on someone … the big grandiose speech. Maybe it would be the two men in the diner who make the homophobic slur at something they see on the diner’s television. Maybe it would be the bullies who taunted Jadin to the point he’d take his own life. Maybe it would be himself, for not grasping what his son was going through. But it never comes. Joe just keeps walking – and talking about what happened to his son to anyone who will listen. It’s all the more heartbreaking because the movie (and real-life) doesn’t let Joe have peace. There’s no big moment. It all feels so futile and sad. It’s just a dad who misses his son and nothing he can do will bring him back. This is certainly not a satisfying movie, but it’s not supposed to be.
It’s also not lost on me that Wahlberg is a devout Catholic and, it seems, a fairly conservative guy. At least as much that he’s denounced his own role in what still might be his best film, Boogie Nights. So it is, if nothing else, pretty interesting to see him in a roll where not only is he advocating for gay rights, but he’s putting churches on blast for both being judgmental of the LGBTQ community and the Catholic church specifically for years and years of abuse against young children. On the surface, it just doesn’t seem like a role Wahlberg would even consider. Not that he condones any of this, but my experience with devout Catholics (I come from a Catholic family) is they just don’t like talking about any of this. So I am curious how Wahlberg wound up producing this film and playing this role. Maybe it was an easy decision? Maybe it required some soul searching. But he’s never done anything quite like it. (Though, in Deepwater Horizon, there’s a pretty magnificent scene near the end where Wahlberg just looks emotionally spent and it’s some of the best acting he’s done to that point.) And this is a side of Wahlberg I really like. I hope he explores this side of his persona more and more as he goes on. Good Joe Bell is a huge surprise.
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