In Kelly Reichart's Old Joy, two thirty-something males who live in the
Pacific Northwest reunite for a day-and-a-half trip by car and on foot
to a hot spring in Oregon's Cascade Mountains and discover some hours
of peace and mutual solitude. It seems that the years have separated
them. Once great friends, they haven't been in touch for a while. They
aren't the same guys they were and perhaps haven't much in common any
more. The stocky, balding, bearded, single Kurt (Will Oldham) is a
semi-hippie living marginally who smokes a lot of grass. Mark (Daniel
London) is thin and married and both he and his pregnant wife work hard
at their jobs. But Reichart is too unemphatic, and her understated
dialogue is too naturalistic, for this implied discovery of lost
friendship to have any drama, or for the differences between the two
men to have any clear point. This is good film-making, but it seems
almost at cross purposes with itself.
The colors are rich, the camera is precise, the sounds are finely recorded. The trip is meticulously observed. Reichart sees her little piece of ivory through a magnifying glass. The way Mark and Kurt talk seems authentic and true. They don't present back-stories, because it wouldn't be natural for them to do so -- though Kurt acknowledges Mark's daring in having a child; he says he's never done anything so "real." Mark's wife, glimpsed before the trip and overheard in cell phone conversations, seems neurotic, insecure about this dip back into Mark's pre-marital world. She may understandably feel jealous of the way, when Kurt calls and suggests the trip, Mark comes hopping.
They take Mark's better car, an old Volvo station wagon, and Kurt's directions lead them astray so at night they have to camp by what looks a bit like a dump, not really knowing exactly where they are. There's nothing to give away here. The two guys make the trip. They make it with Lucy, Mark's dog, up to the hot spring the next afternoon. And the rustic shelter set up there for bathing is as Kurt had promised, simple and lovely. Kurt has said there's not much difference between city and country now but this peaceful place belies that notion, except that when they return, their parting is quick, and Kurt is soon out and about by himself in a sleazy part of town and Mark is heading home with an Air America political talk show tuned in again just as it was when he headed out to get Kurt.
The irony is that all this meticulous observation reveals very little. When it's over, we don't know much about who these two men are. We don't know how they knew each other when younger or for how long; We don't know what Mark's job is. And it is not clear that they find each other boring, because they haven't said a lot to each other. Mark has talked a little about his father, and Kurt has told a long story at the hot spring about shopping for a notebook and a dream he just had that provides the title. In his dream a woman told Kurt that "sorrow is nothing but worn-out joy." Is the joy of Mark and Kurt's old friendship worn out and turned to sorrow? NYTimes critic Manohla Dargis, who wrote this week that this is "one of the finest American films of the year," says that at their parting, "from the way Kurt looks at Mark, it seems clear he knows there won't be another reunion." Seems, perhaps; but it isn't really clear. And this is the weakness of Reichart's understated method: it's so subtle, and in its construction so minimal, it risks not really saying anything. Nature and the urban world speak clearly in Reichart's film, but there's a substratum of feeling and experience that finds no voice.
Shown at various film festivals, including San Francisco, and released in Portland, Oregon in August and New York City (Film Forum) in September 2006.
Action / Drama
Action / Drama
Two old pals reunite for a camping trip in Oregon's Cascade Mountains.
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