2006Director: Kelly Reichardt
Cast: Daniel London, Will Oldham
hispering everything that 2004’s Oscar-nominated hit Sideways crudely blurted, Old Joy proved a touching portrayal of the pathos of impending middle-age. Although its initial impact was far less affecting, no other film at Sundance 2005 haunted me so over the past few weeks. Sharp hilarity subverts any potential angst in this meditation on the transience of life. Even the employment of a somewhat precious title—referring to a sorrow defined by old joys—ultimately feels earned through emotional honesty.
The story involves two men, once close pals of reckless youth, attempting to rekindle a faltering friendship. A last-minute camping excursion presents an opportunity for each man to examine what exactly he’s become and to confront their lack of common ground. Director Kelly Reichardt infuses each frame of the film with a melancholic atmosphere, complimented by excellent performances and a strong dose of realism and substance.
The men of Old Joy are markedly disparate: Kurt (Will Oldham) is a pothead who has made nothing of his life; Mark (Daniel London) is a man with a modest house, a pleasant wife, and a baby on the way. When such different people are thrown into the same proverbial boat, tensions and frustrations arise almost immediately. Even the elusive camping destination exacerbates the chasm between Kurt and Mark. When the old friends make an incorrect turn on a faulty map, Kurt reacts with amused relaxation while Mark angrily explodes. Aware of the distance between one another, the men try to regain intimacy with varying degrees of success. Their relationship alternates between the silence of strangers and almost-profound moments of empathy. After several minutes of angry quiet, Mark’s suddenly gleeful conversation to Kurt suggests a bittersweet gamut of complex emotions working through the gauze of years passed.
A landscape of rusted industrialism serves to represent this dichotomy between distant past and tarnished present. Even in a camping site deep in the woods, beer cans and abandoned sofas litter the landscape. As these defects compromise remote memories of idyllic communion, long and silent shots emphasize the lack of conversation. Impressively, this beautiful aesthetic finds thematic significance in the observational tone the film adopts toward its protagonists. Mark and Kurt are realistic characters that interact in minute psychological detail. While in this regard Old Joy echoes Lost in Translation or the superior Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, Reichardt’s film possesses a mood and naturalism all its own. Gone are the brilliant tangents of Sunrise/Sunset or the emo-style posturing of Translation; what remains is realistic characters and heartfelt ennui.
Of particular note is a political device subtly inserted into the film. During a question and answer session, Kelly Reichardt offered an interpretation of the film (she seems unwilling to pare her work down to dogmatic truths) in which the overriding woe reflects a pervading sadness affecting Americans living in a divisive nation. At first, I was nonplussed by these remarks, attributing them to random Bush-bashing in attempt to win over a liberal crowd. Later, however, I recalled two short scenes in the film, during which Mark tunes into a conservative talk radio program similar to Rush Limbaugh’s or Sean Hannity’s. At the time, I’d interpreted the scenes as revealing the self-homophobia of a confused man (this was barely ten minutes into a film executive-produced by Todd Haynes, so hopefully I wasn’t displaying a one-track mind). In Reichardt’s vision, however, the angry rhetoric played over Mark’s stolid face provides a fascinating comparison between bitter perspectives and sundered friends. The diametrically opposed lifestyles of Mike and Kurt certainly recall the red-state/blue-state mentality.
Even if hostile political positions do not equal the occasional antipathy between friends, the film’s meditations on failed communication and reconcilable differences ring particularly true in today’s world. If the relationship between Mark and Kurt does indeed evoke the empathy of humanity while acknowledging the accuracy of dual visions of life, then Old Joy is truly a remarkably potent and relevant film.