There is a scene midway through American director Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy," adapted from the novel by John Raymond, in which its two principals, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), share a conversation beside a roaring bonfire. They are en route to a secluded hot-spring in the Cascade Mountain region of Oregon. They have been forced to camp out because Kurt, who suggested the trip, has forgotten the way. Daniel, a father-to-be whose wife (Tanya Smith) had expressed reservations about his departure, is visibly frustrated with his old friend, but allows himself to be drawn into a discussion of Kurt's foray into night-school physics classes.
Tall, rail-thin, and balding, with bushy eyebrows and thick beard, Kurt looks like a wild-man, especially in contrast to his neatly turned out companion. His voice is high like a child's, and he talks too quickly. He'll get ahead of himself and then reverse tack, as if sputtering in time with the flames. At this moment, he is explaining to Mark that the official reckoning on the shape of the universe is incorrect. His pet theory, which tumbles out in stops and starts, is that all matter is slowly falling through space: that we inhabit a "tear-shaped universe." Kurt does not seem to acknowledge the poetry of this statement, but Mark's face betrays some reaction. The fire crackles on.
As its title implies, "Old Joy" is a film in which the optimism of youth has weathered over time. Mark and Kurt are both in their mid-to-late thirties; both seem to be products of the post-1960s counterculture. Mark has slipped into the mainstream, setting his car radio dial to Air America as the last vestige of his former activism. Kurt has drifted even further in the other direction--he looks and acts like the sort of person many who consider themselves to be sympathetic liberals would cross the street to avoid.
Mark and Kurt's rapport will be familiar to anyone who has grown apart from a loved one. Their attempts at reconnection, with nature and with each other, carry the faint, mildewed whiff of good intentions. The insistent vibrations of Mark's cell phone suggest that his wife is keeping tabs on their idyll; the fact that she does not ask to speak to Kurt serves as confirmation of her concerns, and also a kind of clue. Their weekend progresses pleasantly enough, but there are no breakthroughs, no revelation of what led to their impasse, no overt renewals of friendship. They strike camp (objects are left strewn forlornly in the forest) and sit together in a greasy-spoon diner (shades here of "Five Easy Pieces" in a bit of business involving an order of toast, but with the antagonism pointed away from the waitress and between the leads). They arrive at the ancient wooden bathhouse and silently undress for a soak.
"Old Joy"'s fragility prevents me from further describing its contents, although at this point, the narrative is very nearly over. It is enough to say that it is a film that takes place inside the "tear-shaped universe" that Kurt describes. It can be read as many things: as a sorrowful account of liberal alienation, as a gentle rebuttal of weekend-warrior movie tropes, or as a muted tragedy of unrequited affection. "Old Joy" is complex, but it is not a carefully attenuated Rhorshach test like Gus Van Sant's "Gerry," one of several films to which it will inevitably be compared (the others are Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Blissfully Yours" and, more tenuously, Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain").
As with Van Sant and Apichatpong, however, the filmmaking is exquisite. The locations are greyly beautiful, but there is none of the sledgehammer lyricism familiar from so many films about forays into Nature. Objects and gestures come loaded with significance, but meaning seems to spring from within, rather than being artfully imposed from without. The characters are ostensibly types--the earnest sell-out and the wizened hippie--but the finely modulated performances by the principals (and even by Lucy, Mark's ever-energetic dog) avert cliche. The screenplay retains the dialogue from Raymond's book, and yet never feels written. The final movements are ambiguous but not obscure -- we can speculate on what will happen next, but the final cut comes at the correct moment. "Old Joy" is slender and powerful, modest and generous. It invites discussion but feels fully formed.
[Adam Nayman is a Reverse Shot staff writer and reviews films in Toronto for eye Weekly. He has also contributed articles to Cinema Scope, Montage, and POV.]
By Michael Koresky
Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" is lovely stuff, yet there's a slightly overdetermined quality to the film that mildly diffuses the graceful, quotidian spontaneity to which it aspires. Maybe it's something in the two leads' demeanors: each with his own individually gawky gait, Will Oldham and Daniel London's Kurt and Mark seem less authentic men than hangdog signifiers of the contemporary American Liberal Experience's flip sides. Or perhaps it's the (generally lauded) use of those Air America broadcasts: as listened to by increasingly middle-class Mark, they're perhaps meant to typify the self-defeatism of the present-day Left, yet they exemplify a slight indelicacy in the film's conceit, of the not-quite-yuppified if slightly yoga-tized married man and his withering radical-cum-social outcast trying to bridge their friendship gaps by just stripping themselves of pretense and getting "back to nature." (Thankfully, they don't find resolution, and the film's touching final ambiguity, regarding the irretrievability of the past, is truly haunting.)
The film is at its best when its quiet camera simply observes the barely visible hostility between Oldham's sinewy loser --- a burdensome friend, indeed, the ideals he still grasps for no longer make him attractive --- and London's fairweather wisp, whose every gesture betrays a barely masked resentment. Reichardt directs with remarkable unobtrusiveness, and her aesthetic is almost completely devoid of the archness and rigidity that could have come with such an overtly symbolic tale. If only most American indie filmmakers could detail their Big Theme movies with such tender remove--the overt stylistics and ludicrously dramatized "artful" cinematography that cause every current American movie to look exactly like the next one make something this simple seem utterly anomalous.
[Michael Koresky is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot, as well the editorial manager at the Criterion Collection and a contributor to Interview and Film Comment.]
By Michael Joshua Rowin
At the risk of overstatement, "Old Joy"'s Mark and Kurt are the only original characters in any American film this year. Granted, "Old Joy"'s grown up Generation Xers are the latest in cinema's "Odd Couple" tradition (with Mark playing the responsible straight man and Kurt the "wild" one) which most recently saw a superficially similar mid-life crisis interpretation in "Sideways." Alexander Payne's was a comic film bound to narrative convention, though, with broad strokes of humor and pathos to safely guide the way--the characters followed in their general predictability. But in "Old Joy," once Mark and Kurt hit the road you can just feel the story opening up to entirely different territory. There's a subtlety and realistic gravity to even the smallest details, such as a seemingly throwaway scene where the two friends exit a store joking about an incident we weren't privy to witness, that portends a journey into the unknown. That is, these characters are as completely sure of themselves and each other as we are--very little.
Even when "Old Joy" hits the obligatory male bonding moments --- involving camping, hot springs dipping, and shit shooting --- the expected gives way to something else altogether. Beyond any larger generational statement and political subtext, "Old Joy" is about that most unfashionable of universal dilemmas: friendship. This is explicitly indicated when Kurt follows up a flighty explanation of the nature of the cosmos--the universe shaped as a falling teardrop--by hitting Mark with a heartfelt plea for platonic reconciliation. Mark's look of genuine disbelief in reaction to the plea, and Kurt's subsequent retraction, perfectly capture the shock of living out a moment of unprepared awkwardness, where nothing can stop a head-on confrontation of defensively isolated souls. A brilliant film's brilliant centerpiece thus coheres due to the best of acting, directing, and writing dedicated to that most rare of artistic challenges: honest emotional adventure.