A strong, solo performance makes Joel interesting, but this serial-killer piece becomes a bit too repetitive and tame
Deeply disturbed Joel Rifkin is prowling the streets of New York in his car, looking for young prostitutes to strangle, kill, and dismember. In a powerful performance, Arnold Odo portrays the infamous serial killer with an even-keeled, eerily deadpan delivery, and it is this performance that carries the entire film.
While Joel ultimately succumbs to its own repetitive pace and lack of a more powerhouse climax, the movie remains a chilling picture, if only to enter into the mind of a stone-cold killer who displays little to no remorse and whose murders appear shockingly mechanical.
This low-budget character-piece begins in a similar vein to Taxi Driver, as we see Rifkin driving through the city and pondering, through voice-over, his failings in his life and his desire for sex and prostitutes. In an intriguing move, director Hand inserts archival footage in order to capture Joe’s childhood neighborhood and the time period in general.
At this point in the narrative, the film is a melancholy and engaging study, and it seems that Joel will dive deeply into the perverse mind of a lonely killer. Odo, who in the film looks alarmingly identical to the real Rifkin, delivers his lines coldly and matter-of-factly as Joel becomes consumed by pornography and easy access to prostitutes who will satisfy his selfish sexual desires.
We learn early on that Rifkin prefers to have sex in his car; he barely has to do anything and can use the girl as merely an object and nothing more. It’s a detached and creepy set-up that transitions well into his eventual desire to kill; having no respect or even a basic fondness for women, he enjoys murdering them by strangulation.
But once Joel perfects his twisted craft, the film slips into a lengthy bout of repetition—lots of driving, lots of voice-over, and lots of by-the-book murder. As onscreen text counts the number of his kills, he has one violent encounter after the other. These scenes vary little, the prostitutes have no characterization, and the script rarely attempts to scratch beneath the surface of the protagonist’s heartlessness.
Perhaps that is the point of Hand’s film–that Joel Rifkin was an evil robot, devoid of emotion, a killing machine who saw his victims as nameless, faceless husks. But such an approach does not always make for an entertaining or engaging viewing experience. As Joel nears its end, even the serial killer’s capture is depicted dryly, leading to a rather expected and somber ending.
Early on, Hand’s script for Joe, and the accompanying cinematography (also by Hand), suggests that the film will be a thorough exploration of a man caving in to the most deplorable acts imaginable. But, in the end, the film is an endless string of bleak and mechanical murders. Odo is in nearly every frame of the movie, and his performance is stark and menacing, but it’s not enough to elevate Joel into a top spot in the serial-killer-movie genre.