Kelly Reichardt went 12 years without a feature film between her debut, River of Grass, and Old Joy, a tender look at aging, lyrical enough to suggest that Reichardt herself may have had a similar experience to the one on screen. Regardless, Old Joy is essentially an ode to the last moments of youth and the reluctant departure from it that we all must make, a bittersweet journey of acceptance and the changes that come with it. It’s thinly plotted, with much of it taking place in a car, but brilliantly acted reaction shots and a masterful use of sound and silence create a mood that makes the picture far more poignant than it is on paper.
The film begins with a surprised Mark (Daniel London) fielding a surprised phone call from his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham) asking him to go camping with him for a night. In a crucial moment, Mark asks his heavily pregnant wife for permission (which she reluctantly grants) and subtly suggests his approaching fatherhood, a theme that the movie never drops. Mark listens to Air America, and as the influence of LBJ is discussed, Reichardt’s camera puts the natural beauty of the Pacific Northwest (more specifically, Oregon, where all her films are set) on full display. There are lush evergreens in almost every frame that allows us to see out the car window, and the interruptions to the scenery are nicely trimmed houses or looks at an overcast yet serene sky that makes the film feel like an elegy. It’s the look the sky gets on a nice day in the spring, when a large cloud covers the sun for a short but noticeable period of time. The time before the cloud moves on and just after is filled with joy and pleasantry, but while it’s there, it’s sort of a bummer, waiting, transitioning, and wishing you could do something. That’s how both Mark feels throughout the movie as Kurt fails to connect with him and he expresses concerns (but not doubts) about his impending fatherhood.
In their first meeting, we get the impression that Mark was once exactly as Kurt is now, but has grown up. Kurt talks a lot, sometimes embarrassing himself (such as when he begins talking about string-theory), and smokes weed in several scenes, seemingly trapped in a youth that Mark has grown out of as he sets his eyes on raising a family. Mark does little talking, with his facial expressions providing all we need to know and all that Kurt doesn’t want to, suggesting that he knows this is the last experience of his youth, simultaneously melancholic but accepting. When Mark does talk, it’s about the past, namely about a now-closed record store that the two frequented. “It’s an end of an era,” Mark says wistfully.
Dialogue like that ensures Old Joy does have an agenda, always talking about something unimportant with a language that is really about youth, alienation or friendship. Kurt is talking so often because he is trying to recapture their friendship and Mark is silent because he knows he must let it go. That said, all of the dynamism between characters is in the ambient noise of nature, the paralleling of radio talk shows, and, most importantly, in silence. Indeed, it’s when neither character is talking that the film has its best moments. A silence in Old Joy is a beautiful chance for reflection, punctuated by wonderful shots of nature, birds, and bugs that can be anything from pure enjoyment of the environment to an awkward realization that this life is either behind him (for Mark) or the only thing he knows how to do (for Kurt). The only one without regret is the dog (Reichardt’s own Lucy, who would memorably reprise in Wendy and Lucy) that they bring along, happy just to be in company, no future or past on her mind.
It’s because Old Joy is equally interested in both of its characters that it speaks so loudly. The two rarely connect, but when they do, they fall somewhere between a homoerotic longing and a “bromance” that gives the film a regretful undertone, as if these characters will not quite be haunted by memories, but they will always be there as a pressing reminder of what it meant to be—and escape from—alienation. We meet Mark first, but we are left with Kurt, who may not realize until the end that it’s all over. There is no incident that sparks any of the feelings, just an accumulation of time, and in that time, living. “The end of an era” indeed; we can only hope that Kurt realizes Mark was talking about more than just records.