Meet Joe Black (Universal, 1998)

In The Green Man Review with Excellence in Writing Award (EIWA).

“I’m waiting outside the front door.”


Susan Parrish meets a stranger at The Corinth Coffee Shop. It’s one of those meetings that doesn’t require a name… just a connection of souls… She has a fiance, but he doesn’t exactly make her “sing with rapture and dance like a dervish.” Her father, wealthy CEO of a communications company William Parrish, has begun to hear voices. One voice, to be exact. And the voice turns out to be that of Mr. Joe Black. That’s the pseudonym that he must give to… Death. It seems too that Death and the stranger from the coffee shop are one and the same.

Folklore the world over is replete with tales of Death coming to visit. The gentleman caller. The man in the red mask. The dark visitor. The guest who is neither heralded nor introduced, who is nonetheless the unspoken center of the human orbit in an air thick with purpose. Further, we are not unfamiliar with tales of Death on holiday… wanting to experience the life of mortals (like the Man in the Moon in Tolkien’s poetry). In fact, according to the Production Notes, the film “was inspired by a character from the 1920s stage play adapted for the screen as 1934’s Death Takes a Holiday.” Death is on vacation… trying peanut butter… even… falling in love…

And he has that fascinating attraction of being direct, open yet mysterious, and not ‘grabby’ (as Polly Walker in Enchanted April, would say). He has that irresistable charm that appears to be paying attention without ulterior motives. That Cable Guy “Don’t touch her! Not even a little…” It’s open-ness with neither indifference nor lust. Does Pitt do Death well? To that I ask, ‘to what can we compare him?’ William Parish (Hopkins) says “You’re not death. You’re just a kid in a suit.” But, before long, one is convinced. It only takes a little pain in the chest to remind us. Susan calls him “diffident in the most seductive way, and yet… powerful”.

All such stories of death ask the question… While death is on vacation, nobody dies? In this case, Death answers ‘When you’re shaving, you are also occupied with your work. One part of you is doing one thing, and your mind is doing another… Now multiply that times infinity…’

Great answer! As Anthony Hopkins says, “It’s a good script; it’s a fine script. That’s how I choose. I’ve gotten a little more choosy as I’ve gotten older…” Indeed, we can expect no less from Bo Goldman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest , Melvin and Howard , Scent of a Woman.).


Couple the excellent script with the fact that, instead of special effects, we’re given the quiet, awesome, terrifying use of truly analog devices, like a lit figure standing behind glass speaking in one’s own voice!

The great Bill Parrish at a loss for words? The man from whose lips fall
‘rapture’ and ‘passion’ and ‘obsession’…all those admonitions about
being ‘deliberately happy’, what there is no sense ‘living your life
without…’, all the sparks and energy you give off, the rosy advice
you dispense in round, pear-shaped tones —

What the hell is this? Who are you?

Just think of millenniums multiplied by aeons compounded by infinity,
I’ve been around that long, but it’s only recently that your affairs here
have piqued my interest. Call it boredom, the natural curiosity of
me, the most lasting and significant element in existence has come to see…you.

So Death has come. But will he go unnoticed? The film makes use of the lovely device of leaving everyone guessing or bewildered.

When I introduce you, if I say who you are, I don’t think anyone will stay for dinner.

Then don’t.

Death coming to dinner at night is one thing, but he also attends a boardmeeting (the next day) reminiscent of the one where Tom Hanks shows up out of nowhere in Big. This provides some succulent comedy. And Death remembers what he learns… Such as the definition of a deal: “You give your word and I give mine, that we’ll do what we say… it is a truth exchanged between two people…” Naturally, making a bargain with Death or the Underworld is another common folktale and mythic element. And the payoff is almost always dreadful. In this film, the question is whether Death can live up to his end of things.

Then there is the age-old question… ‘what would you do if you knew you only had a short time left to live?’ Martin Luther said he’d plant a tree. In other words, he do the work he’d intended to do anyway. It’s something a story like this must ask to be honest. The honesty, in fact, is surprising. In most films a man’s work is not considered worthy of his last attentions. Because it’s not considered appropriate for a man’s work to be central to his life. A vocation. This film is lovely, in that it makes room for the opposite idea…

Why, at this juncture, are you letting yourself be so concerned by business matters?

I don’t want anybody buying up my life’s work and turning it into something it wasn’t meant to be. A
man wants to leave something behind. And he wants it left behind the way he made it. And he wants it to be
run the way he ran it — with a sense of honor, of dedication, of truth. Okay?

Similarly, we’re inundated with films that portray two ugly sides to a life of wealthy corporate power. Either shallow dissipation or ruthless malevolence and indifference. In William Parrish, we have neither. It’s a film in which work and honor, vocation and depth, are permitted to coincide. Say the Production Notes, “We identified him (William Parish) as a man who has built his business as a dearly held reflection of his own convictions and tastes…”

Nor is death trivialized. In fact, when precisely one of those shallow, dissipating corporate parasites uses the phrase “death and taxes”, Joe insists on knowing precisely what is meant. It’s a signal that throughout the film we can expect not flippancy about death, but a substantive treatment of it’s relationship to life. The film takes on the question (admirable in refusing to shirk from the classic dilemmas) of whether death is really meant to co-exist with man or is even able to do so. Whether death is part of man’s proper order. The film offers this answer.. that Death is not meant to invade man’s life, but that man must face death with the true tale of his life.

The theme is perhaps best expressed in Joseph Campbell’s words:”That last act in the biography of the hero is that of death… Here the whole sense of the life is epitomized. Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave.” Or, as a certain poet has said, “Life is an exercise in deciding how best to die.”

It wouldn’t be a modern film without considering the possibility that death can be a mercy.. Death as merciful release from pain. In a hospital ward, Death is recognized for who he is, by an old Jamaican woman who is living her last in agony. She’s terrified but also wistful. Joe tells her “Everything gone be irey” in such soft tones… If you’ve ever longed for oblivion, you’ll feel it. This part rips me up..

Woman: Obeah….. Obeah mon. I gonna die.
Death: No obeah, sister. No duppy, no jumbie. Evera ting gon’ be irey.
Woman: Obeah.
Death: Obeah evil. I not evil.
Woman: What you then?
Death: I from dat nex’ place.
Woman: You wait here’n to take us? Like you bus driver to dere?
Death: No, no. I on holiday.
Woman: Some spot you pick…. Pain is bad.
Death: I nuttin’ to do wi’ dat.
Woman: Make it go ‘way.
Death: Doctor lady make it irey.
Woman: Not dis pain. Dis pain tru an’ tru. Make it go ‘way.
Death: Can’t, sistah.
Woman: Can, mistah. Take me to dat nex’ place.
Death: Not time yet.
Woman: Make it time.
Death: Can’t feel wi’ de way tings gotta be, Easter.
Woman: Please…
Death: ……Close your eyes, Easter……. Soon.

This is indeed a hero’s tale. Death is heroic, and so is William parish (Hopkins has a role very much like his Charles Morse in The Edge). And the score is heroic, as well. When the fireworks and love, the night and the score, rise and rise around the hero’s tale… even death sheds a tear. Even as they are talking about music being ‘feathered into’ the celebration, one realizes that the score is telling us of the momentous drama of the events that will unfold.. One of the closing songs… Ah, so good!.. is a version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Bob Thiele… A kind of Jamaican allusion there too, from that earlier part of the film.

The tremendous scale of Dante Ferretti’s designs and their execution are magnificent. Casting glows… Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins are together again (Legends of the Fall)! Marcia Gay Harden gives us an all too real older daughter (Allison) who takes second place in her father’s attentions… real because she manages to be fragility personified… obsession and near-breaking… near-panic… desperation. It’s likely she will remind the viewer of someone familiar. Claire Forlani (Susan) — sounding so American, you wouldn’t know she’s a Londoner — is… ‘What should I do?. How should I choose the kind of man I’ll spend my life with?’ You know the type, but it’s hard to tell if Forlani is really that bewildered or her acting is brilliant. I’ll err on blaming the latter.

In the end, someone must cross over. There’s actually a scene of Death escorting William over a bridge, which made me think somehow of Charon ferrying his clients over the Styx. And lest one think of crossing over prematurely, even Death decides that’s a bad idea. One can tell that it’s cold, very cold, where he lives. It isn’t a human place.

The website is and Here is the IMDB entry.

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