Mark (Daniel London) is a 40-ish husband, about to become a father, who meditates in order to hold at bay a vague dissatisfaction with his marital relationship and a pointedly less vague dread of the life to come. Kurt (Will Oldham) is the friend with whom Mark has lost touch, as aimless in his constant search of an elusive spiritual bliss as Mark is beholden to what he imagines to be the societal requirements necessary to achieve stability and happiness. Old Joy is the spare, poetic, blissfully haunted movie about these two men and the attempt to recapture a moment of the past, a fleeting shadow of what originally drew them together as friends, and their drift through a weekend together in the woods of the Oregon Cascades, where their two figures, constantly, fluidly floating past and trespassing upon one another within director Kelly Reichardt’s frames (shot by cinematographer Peter Sillen), will silently merge with the vast, quiet landscape, where the future hovers, solemnly, forebodingly, in the pines.
Reichardt merges the viewer with the Oregon forest too; she gets the seductive power of trees and logging trucks and roadside diners as glimpsed in passing through Kurt’s heavy-lidded, cannabis-impaired eyes. Old Joy is a road movie pitched to the rhythms of gently swaying pine trees, and one of its quietly insistent pleasures is the frequency with which it deflects the trajectory of this fundamentally propulsive subgenre, effectively translating the contemplative ambience and profound economy of a short story through subtle, yet essentially cinematic use of image and sound. (The script was written by Reichardt and Jon Raymond, adapted from Raymond’s short story.) By the time these two get lost on their way to a secluded hot springs (“That road sign up there is blank,” complains Mark to his unexacting navigator) and have to pitch camp at night by the side of the road amidst a pile of trash and abandoned furniture (“There’s not much difference between the city and the forest anymore,” opines Kurt, “Trees there, garbage here”), we’re lost too-- in the tangle of emotions not exactly repressed, but fighting to stay alive. We're cast adrift by Kurt’s muddled desperation to maintain a flicker of something that once held them together and the indifference of Mark, who can no longer imagine what that something might have been, so numbed is he by the slowly mounting panic of impending responsibility.
“I had a dream about you the other night,” Kurt tells Mark at the beginning of their journey. “It was in a hospital or something… But you were the best thing it in, by far.” Then later, when Kurt allows his defenses to drop long enough to express momentary, genuine despair over not knowing how to connect with his friend, the nakedness of Kurt’s need is not only shocking to Mark, but to us as well. Kurt regains his composure and papers over the moment in order to maintain the kind of placidity the surroundings seem to dictate. But even though the cat is now forever out of the bag, Reichardt artfully resists the temptation toward melodrama—everything expressed and left unexpressed in Old Joy has equal clarity in the subtlest of motions, and in the moments of stillness too. The series of images of these two men silently absorbing the experience of the hot springs, and Mark’s resistance to his friend’s innocent overture of physical closeness, eloquently carry within them the resonant, dissonant chords of male friendship echoing and then dissipating.
Kurt will later recount a dream in which he is subsumed by guilt over nearly running down a pedestrian with his bicycle, and then forced to encounter the man over and over again and suffer further humiliation. In the dream he is comforted by a middle-aged Indian woman who tells him “Sorrow is just worn-out joy,” a suggestion he recounts to Mark, who may or may not be hearing what his old friend is telling him. The men part company upon returning to Portland (they pass by a neon sign located in an industrial district on the outskirts of downtown that flickers a melancholy “Made in Oregon”), and the tentative expressions they offer to each other acknowledge that the friendship is now passing into fading acquaintance, that this moment together will likely be their last. Mark vacantly drives away, hunched behind the wheel, ostensibly protected against the outside world in his motorized shell, even as the voices of talk radio once again validate his fears about “the uncertainty of the future and the pressure of the present.” Kurt, himself perhaps only a week or two away from homelessness, drops his camping gear in a doorway and proceeds to zig and zag along the busy streets, perpetuating his meandering search for meaning, for purpose, for connection in his life with anything and everything and nothing all at the same time. Old Joy is a lovely, allusive portrait of the blissful roots of despair, a welcome reminder in this season of award-sniffing bombast how brisk and refreshing the scent of a subtle, original vision can be.
(Old Joy opens today in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, the Laemmle Playhouse 7 in Pasadena and the Laemmle Fallbrook 7 in West Hills. For playdates around the country, click here. You can see the Old Joy trailer here.)