Old Joy (2005)

 NYT Critics' Pick
Kino International
Will Oldham, left, and Daniel London have a reunion of sorts in the Pacific Northwest in “Old Joy.”

A Journey Through Forests and a Sense of Regret

There are roughly 90 viewing days left till Christmas. By that point most of the big studio movies will have opened for the consideration of the paying public and Academy Award voters, and untold numbers of words will have been spilled about the same handful of serviceable or perhaps even brilliant films of the sort that dominate the discourse every fall. Odds are that none of those contenders will capture the tenor of these difficult times with more sensitivity or greater attention to beauty than Kelly Reichardt’s “Old Joy,” a triumph of modesty and of seriousness that also happens to be one of the finest American films of the year.
Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, who wrote the screenplay with Ms. Reichardt, the film tracks two old friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), as they drive out of Portland, Ore., one day and into a strained reunion. As Mark, who’s about to become a father, drives, and Kurt keeps the pot pipe going, they talk about old times, burning up memories and miles. They lose their way, the sun sinks, they set up camp. The next morning, they hike deep into the woods, where they find the professed reason for their getaway, a natural hot spring. There, amid the bubbling water and gentle whirs and hums of the forest, one of the friends struggles to recover something that had gone lost, namely a sense of the other.
Much like Ms. Reichardt’s first feature, “River of Grass” (1995), about a young woman who dreams of escaping her dreary life by going on the lam, “Old Joy” briefly borrows the conventions of the road movie while keeping its romance safely at bay. Quintessentially if not exclusively American, the road movie often involves a flight to freedom, however illusory the freedom and truncated the trip. In “River of Grass” the woman ends her journey on a congested freeway, another gerbil spinning her wheels. Her desire for something more, some transcendence out of her ordinary existence, gives “River of Grass” a bittersweet tang. Ten years later, and Ms. Reichardt has little sweetness left for “Old Joy.”
What she does have in great supply are beauty and feeling, which is why this trip isn’t the bummer it might seem. Ms. Reichardt answers the deep current of sorrow that runs through the film and the lingering sense of regret that hangs over the men with one pristinely framed image after another. Working with her cinematographer, Peter Sillen, she offers up a world of enchantments that, along with Kurt’s fumbling confessions of friendship, create a counter-narrative to despair. Garbage mars the woods, but here too there are canopies of soaring trees and a luxuriously unhurried slug. The deeper the men walk into the forest, accompanied only by Mark’s dog, the more they recede into the surrounding green, until they become part of the larger picture, not its centerpiece.
There is a universal aspect to this story about memory and loss, and how we use the past to take refuge from the present. You can’t go home again; sometimes, you can’t even share a bowl of pot the way you once did. Yet if Mark and Kurt’s excursion resembles any number of classic adventures across time and space, the film is also insistently about this specific moment in time and space. Namely, an America in which progressive radio (actually, snippets from Air America) delivers the relentless grind of bad news that Mark can only listen to without comment and with a face locked in worry, a face on which Ms. Reichardt invites us to project the shell shock, despair and hopelessness of everyone else listening in across the country.
At one point during their travels, Kurt tells Mark a meandering story that begins with a trip to a store to buy a notebook and ends with a scene from a dream. In his dream a woman gives Kurt a hug and tells him that “sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy.” It’s a sentiment befitting Wordsworth, whose description of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity” finds perfect cinematic expression in a stunningly moving close-up of Mark’s open, surprised and now-joyful face as he listens to Kurt. It’s uncertain how much of Kurt’s charming story Mark really hears, but for a few moments he seems liberated by it and the man sharing it.
All journeys come to an end, and Mark and Kurt’s brings the friends almost full circle, back to the same city street where they met up. It’s an unceremonious parting, absent any of the warmth that surfaced during their hot-spring idyll. From the way Kurt looks at Mark, it seems clear he knows there won’t be another reunion. From the way Mark automatically switches on the car radio and its drone (“the uncertainty about the future”), it’s just as evident that only one traveler went anywhere. Joy wears out naturally for some people; others use it up. That Ms. Reichardt chooses to end her film with an image of Kurt, out in the streets and alive to the world, suggests that he hasn’t given up on it, and neither has she.
Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed and edited by Kelly Reichardt; written by Jonathan Raymond and Ms. Reichardt, based on the short story by Mr. Raymond; director of photography, Peter Sillen; music by Yo La Tengo, performed with Smokey Hormel; produced by Neil Kopp, Lars Knudsen, Jay Van Hoy and Anish Savjani; released by Kino International. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 76 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Will Oldham (Kurt), Daniel London (Mark) and Tanya Smith (Tanya).


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