If you must have plot, motive and payoff, Kelly Reichardt’s exquisite new film about an ambiguous reunion between two old friends may not be up your alley. See it anyway: It contains the whole world. Even at 76 blithely uncommercial minutes, Old Joy, which is based on a short story by Reichardt’s co-writer Jonathan Raymond, takes its sweet time. The movie’s scale is minuscule, but the physical and emotional landscapes it travels are as broad, deep and mysterious as the human psyche itself.
To the mute disapproval of his very pregnant wife (Tanya Smith), Mark (Daniel London) takes off with his old friend Kurt (played by musician Will Oldham) on an impromptu overnight camping trip in the Cascade mountains near Portland. The vibe is Pacific-Northwest scruffy, and as they set off, driving through the cheerless industrial wastelands that pave the way out of any city, Air America plays on the radio, with callers hurling Marxist invective at the Bush administration that runs in parallel to Kurt’s cosmic-hippie patter. With their flannel shirts, rumpled hair and ubiquitous joints, Mark and Kurt look as though they occupy the same sociopolitical space. They share a love of the wild, but as they lose themselves along the steep mountain roads, we become aware that one of them has moved on. In fragments of conversation and the occasional uneasy glance, we see how uncomfortable Mark is made by Kurt’s incessant jabber. He murmurs supportive nothings, but their old intimacy, long taken for granted, has thinned into supplication on the one hand and tact on the other, and for a while Old Joy seems to be shaping itself discreetly into a narrative about the yawning gulf that opens between old buddies when one grows up and the other stays stuck in slacker land.
But soon, an almost imperceptible shift takes place that opens up a whole new dimension and calls the existing balance of power into question. Another kind of movie would have gay subtext blaring from every sideways glance, every squeeze of a knee, every meaningful phrase. In Old Joy the dialogue — the companionate shorthand of long friendships or marriages — stays mercifully clear of topic statements, but as in her equally lovely first feature, River of Grass (1995), Reichardt uses landscape in the most implicit way to suggest her wistful themes of change and spiritual loss. (When Mark and Kurt stop to fill up the car, the camera lingers after they leave, on a beautiful old church standing behind the gas station.) The closest the movie comes to metaphor is when the pair arrive at their destination — a skeleton house without walls — though what happens there is so tacit it barely qualifies as climax. Old Joy may hammer a nail in the coffin of ’60s utopianism (and offer a delicate good riddance), but as it fades into a nighttime cityscape, this wonderfully inward, gossamer movie gestures at something more durable — the evanescence and asymmetry of human connection, and maybe a speck of hope.
OLD JOY | Directed by KELLY REICHARDT | Written by JONATHAN RAYMOND and REICHARDT, based on the short story by RAYMOND | Produced by NEIL KOPP, LARS KNUDSEN, JAY VAN HOY and ANISH SAVJANI | Released by Kino International | Fallbrook, Music Hall and Playhouse 7