In her films, Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Meek’s Cutoff, Wendy and Lucy) immerses you in the life of a handful of people over a day or two. In Certain Women, it was four women in rural America, in Meek’s Cutoff it was settler women in the 1840s Oregon desert. In Old Joy we follow old friends Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) as they reunite for an overnight camping trip in search of some hot springs.
We first see Mark trying to meditate in his garden with the noises of traffic and children playing as a backdrop. His pregnant wife noisily blends a smoothie and, when old friend Kurt rings to invite him away, her passive negativity and Mark’s loaded begrudging martyrdom show us the heavy weight they both carry.
Kurt is not at home when Mark calls but soon arrives putting a cart laden with oddments that he loads in his van. As the two head off, the awkward dynamic between them feels genuine. Here are two friends who once had much in common but choices, circumstances and the differences in their ambition and personalities have pulled them apart.
Mark has chosen responsibility and to tread a well worn path that gives him stability in exchange for freedom. Kurt seems flummoxed by Mark’s choices. He hasn’t left behind the spontaneity and freedom of their youth, evidenced by their whimsical adventure into the wilds that sees them get lost pretty quickly. We see small signs that Kurt’s life is perhaps not as easy as he makes it seem, such as never actually seeing him in the house that is supposed to be his.
There are some languorous and exquisite scenes where we see moments of connection between the two men. The scene at the hot springs is restrained and poignant, so much meaning communicated in a few frames. Reichardt seems able to subtly convey meaning in what at first glance seems to be mundane ordinariness; the last scene with Kurt could be inconsequential but it says so much about the man.
I have read that this film is about masculinity and to a certain extent perhaps it is – the inability of the two men to really share what is going on in their lives aligns with the stereotype that men can’t communicate their inner feelings easily with each other. I can’t imagine two women in the same situation, where they have forced intimacy for 24 hours, without secret fears and vulnerabilities being divulged.
It seems, though, as much about the difficulty of leaving our youth behind. The title, I think, refers to something Kurt says that sorrow is just old joy. For Mark, the sorrow is that he has left that part of him behind, for Kurt, it is that it no longer sustains him.
Screening as part of a Kelly Reichardt retrospective at ACMI.
Bechdel test – fail