John Patrick Shanley
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
“You have a brain cloud,” says Dr. Ellison to Joe Banks.
Joe is an unaffected individual, although the prognosis causes him to wrinkle his brow: “Brain cloud?”
The Dr. continues: “There’s a black fog of tissue running right down the center of your brain. It’s very rare. It’ll spread at a regular rate. It’s very destructive… Your brain will simply fail, followed abruptly by your body.”
Joe exits the office with a grim expression. He realizes his life — hitherto an intolerably boring one — is limited, and faces the immense pressure of fashioning an enjoyable epilogue.
Joe Versus the Volcano contains Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as its romantic leads. This casting predicts, to a certain extent, the narrative drive, though the film is the most creative of the joint ventures between Hanks and Ryan, each of which adheres closely to established romantic plots. Romance, however, is but one of the admitted thematic finds in Joe Versus the Volcano, as its theme is equally supported by philosophy and argumentative takes on consumerism.
Joe works at the American Parascope factory (“Home of the Rectal Probe!”). In an opening montage (scored with “Sixteen Tons”) he, with others in identical wear, is ushered into the building — down an inefficient trail that mimics the company’s lightening-bolt logo and into prohibitively secure revolving gates. The sequence is comparatively similar to Fritz Lang’s similarly themed Metropolis.
His office is strewn in fluorescent lighting that details every piece of lint on every piece of clothing. It is a grim, redundant, and lifeless environment. He performs his job with mechanic resiliency, though each subsequent move is more strained than the last. Joe has common headaches, an inability to focus, and “little” sore throats. He looks up and observes a flickering, buzzing light. The atmosphere briefly hypnotizes him, as his flickering eyelids seem tied to the annoyance.
A doctor blames a “brain cloud” as the source of Joe’s pains. Because the prognosis requires the abandon of his mundane lifestyle, Joe accepts it. He returns to his office and quits, leaving after he successfully asks Dede to dinner — she is a woman he has been aware of in the entirety of his tenure. (In the same scene Joe empties the contents of his desk, including Robinson Crusoe, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey; the books plainly supply inspiration for the film.)
Dede is the first of three women Joe comes in contact with. Each is played with forced difference by Meg Ryan. The first two belong to the same capitalist trap as Joe. Dede, for one, has the same job. On their date she is impressed with Joe’s courageous and risky abandon of routine, and despite her impression she lacks the attributes required to make the same step. Expectedly, she rejects him, fearing the influence he would provide.
In what appears to be an illogical contrivance Joe is visited by a Mr. Graynamore. The man is immensely wealthy, and curiously has knowledge of Joe’s condition. Mr. Graynamore owns a superconductor business, one that relies upon a precious material named bubureau available only on an obscure island in the South Pacific. The denizens of this island are not swayed by financial offerings, though seek a human sacrifice as the only required compensation for the mineral. Mr. Graynamore offers Joe four credit cards (each without a spending limit) if he will appease the Waponis and jump into their volcano. Without any distracting purpose and with eagerness Joe complies.
This is an opportunity for Joe to die heroically, and at no point does he second-guess his decision. He has no family, no friends, and meager tastes. He is essentially doing a favor for a millionaire, bartering himself as an expendable form of currency. Conversely, his sacrifice will be a sudden, heroic climax to a life with little memorable punctuation.
There is, however, a tremendous omission in the blueprint. Joe’s sacrifice will elicit honor, courage, and true virtue; love is the only missing and desired element. The three women he meets in his final trek are identical in appearance (suggesting that there is a distinct body Joe is attracted to). They are differentiated by varying levels of financial dependency. Dede, again, represents the past from which Joe escaped.
The second woman Joe meets is Mr. Graynamore’s daughter Anjelica, poet and artist. She is supported entirely by her father’s money. Although she inhabits the lifestyle and tastes of a free spirit, she is completely dependent on her father’s allowances. As with Dede, she is intrigued by Joe’s case, yet she fears removing herself from here dependent yet stable lifestyle.
The women are romantic caricatures, and the third, as expected, will match Joe’s freedom and independence.
Finally, Joe meets Anjelica’s half-sister Patricia. Patricia is the captain of a ship (the Tweedle Dee). Her position is an obvious metaphor; she is in complete control of her own life, diverting where she may and completely independent from any foreign guidance. She is the third and final woman in a series of increasingly compatible romantic options, and possesses the traits that compliment Joe’s.
There is a motif that appears throughout the film, firstly as the American Parascope logo — of a lightning bolt that dissects a triangular mountain. The image is repeated in the incongruous trail that leads to the factory, and soon after in an appropriately shaped crack in Joe’s apartment (close eyes will see that the room is actually a subsidized half of a larger room; it is divided like the image of the mountain). This motif is given a literal portrayal when a bolt of lightning, in the same shape, dissects the Tweedle Dee in the middle of a typhoon.
Joe assembles his luggage into a raft (in what becomes the wisest of his irreverent purchases before his trip), and he and Patricia drift towards Waponi Wu.
The island’s denizens — the Waponis — are distinguished for a peculiar love of orange soda. Empty cans grace their wardrobes in lieu of feathers or other pieces of found attire (how the race acquires orange soda is a ridiculous mystery). Shortly after his arrival, Joe is fed, bathed, and dons an Armani tuxedo. Without hesitation, he demands, “Take me. To. The VOLCANO!”
Prior to his work at the factory Joe was a fireman, and admitted to his doctor to have left because of fear. There was an inherent risk to his former occupation, one that is realized as he approaches the lip of the steaming volcano. It is also evident, at this point, of the significance of the recurring motif: lighting, in this context, is a form of fire. It is a reminder of Joe’s former position — one of his heroic episodes, in which he saved three children during a fire, is repeatedly cited in the film. His sacrifice is an act related to his past, and in performing it he reclaims the traits he once possessed; he faces his ultimate fear.
The volcano can also be seen as a womb. And as the resulting action of his jump will tell, it is a rebirth. Joe survives, changed.
Joe Versus the Volcano is totally unique. Its creative innovations — its design and dialogue particularly — are, firstly, odd, yet cohere into an ultimately inspired vision. It is a romantic fable (a claim evidenced by the opening and closing captions; “And they lived happily ever after”) and an allegory. Joe’s unfortunate prognosis and ensuing plight may be completely imagined, though his motivations and lessons are realistically applicable. Joe Versus the Volcano is a work meant to transcend, and it does so with poetic semblance.