Carefully accumulating and juxtaposing details to form an interconnected web of loneliness, regret, and longing for happier times gone by, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy would warrant being called a mashup of Sideways and Brokeback Mountain if it weren’t so superior to those heralded “independent” predecessors in both form and content. Crafted with the leisurely rhythm of a Sunday afternoon drive, Reichardt’s deceptively simple film achieves its perceptivity from laidback unobtrusiveness, her cautiously detached direction providing an intimate fly-on-the-wall perspective on friends Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) as they reunite to take a weekend camping trip to the hot springs nestled deep within Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.
Throughout their journey, almost nothing of outward import occurs: the duo chat amicably, get lost, have breakfast, and quietly penetrate the lush, green wilderness while listening to Air America radio broadcasts in which both callers and hosts lament the sorry state of the Democratic party, national race relations, and the country’s two-party political system. And yet beneath this outdoor expedition’s façade of inactivity lurks the dull, persistent throb of heartache and concealed anguish, a mood intensified by Reichardt’s exquisite attention to her milieu’s ambient sights and sounds, and brought to melancholy life by the expressive minimalism of her leads. “Man, Mark, you really hold onto shit,” says Kurt after seeing his friend’s well-worn marijuana container, though the statement is just as applicable to the speaker himself, a bearded, balding guy who seemingly coasts along with blissful stoner nonchalance but who, it’s slowly revealed, also harbors inescapable sadness.
Their excursion instigated by Kurt as a chance to reconnect after an apparently lengthy separation, the two (accompanied by Mark’s dog) dutifully catch up on each other’s lives—Kurt’s miscellaneous stories about running into old friends, Mark’s feelings about his relationship with Tanya (Tanya Smith) and his fear of impending fatherhood—all the while carefully avoiding any overt talk about the tumultuous shared past that stands as the proverbial elephant in the forest. The two discuss topics such as an old record shop’s distasteful transformation into a health food shop (dubbed “Rejucination”), Mark’s father leaving his mother at the age of 70, and Kurt’s personal superstring theory that the universe is in the shape of a tear falling through space, all while a radio voice pontificates about the “uncertainties of the future.” Through such indirect conversations, as well as a naturalistic mise-en-scène encoded with oblique (but nonetheless ever-present and piercing) signifiers, Reichardt delicately reveals stratified layers of emotion.
While such reserve sporadically dampens down its narrative, Old Joy‘s informality and subtlety is furthered by London and Oldham, the former displaying a reticence that barely masks his character’s heightened anxiety, the latter concealing apprehensive hopefulness behind charming, carefree affability. Reichardt fashions an intricate rapport between her protagonists and setting, the silence of the Oregon woodlands counterbalancing the noxious noise of the modern world (“You can’t get real quiet anymore,” Kurt says in explaining his affection for the rural), and the seclusion of their tree-lined destination conveying the friends’ inner and interpersonal alienation. That the hot spring baths are eventually revealed to be hollowed-out tree trunks in which people lie—thus entailing physical communion between naked man and his ancient environment—further reinforces the notion that the trip is, at heart, an attempted reversion to a more natural, harmonious state.
Yet even during Kurt’s climactic explanation of the film’s title and subsequent stab at recapturing what he’d lost, Reichardt’s delicate touch creates room for interpretative flexibility, allowing dialogue pauses and the unseen spaces between scenes to breathe with palpable, mysterious life. And thus fittingly, Old Joy concludes not with expository enlightenment but, rather, with an abrupt, inconclusive note still ringing with the sorrow of its airwave-transmitted Greek chorus.