Opens Friday in select theaters
There were some good movies in 2006—perhaps not as many as in other years—but the one that may linger longest is both modest to the point of ephemera and already a bit past its political moment. I speak of Old Joy, Kelly Reichardt's oddly titled naturalistic marvel that emerged from last January's Sundance as a critics' favorite, despite being buried in an out-of-competition program and despite lacking major stars and any dramatic event more stirring than the sight of one man massaging another's shoulders.
From its opening shot of a sparrow perched on the gutter of a modest house to the last breathtaking, off-handed and sublimely haunting image, Old Joy is the work of artists with a powerful idea, who are in complete mastery of their craft. The fact that this wisp of a movie—one that might buckle under the kind of praise that is heaped upon sturdier, thicker-skinned vehicles like The Good Shepherd or Dreamgirls—is even in Triangle theaters is something of a miracle, as well. Old Joy is one of the best films of the year, but it also plays like one of the best films of 1973 or 1974.
While film lovers are right to look back nostalgically at the 1970s—a wave of longing occasioned most recently by the death of Robert Altman—the truth of the matter is that most of the movies then were as junky as most of the multiplex product today. Even the most celebrated movies of the era, like The Godfather and Chinatown, tended to toe the line of orthodox storytelling. That said, however, the early 1970s that we tend to romanticize is characterized by a ruminative rusticity, the centrality of counterculture dropouts, and cars, always cars—or motorcycles. Think Sugarland Express and Easy Rider, Two Lane Blacktop and Five Easy Pieces. But that is getting a little ahead of (and behind) the story.
In order to respond to Old Joy, it probably helps to have some degree of identification with the principal characters (human ones, that is, for there also is a dog present throughout), two men in their mid-30s named Mark and Kurt (Daniel London and Will Oldham, both perfect). They are former housemates in Portland, Ore., who reunite for an impromptu overnight camping trip in the Cascade Mountains. The relationship is sketched out in an economic parceling of verbal and visual information, as when Kurt thanks Mark for being willing to take the trip on such short notice: "Everybody's so busy now." It's so true.
Once, Mark and Kurt lived in a large household of earnest slackers, but now Mark is turning into a square, married with a kid on the way. He even drives a Volvo wagon. His expression is mournful, anxious and exhausted. His marriage seems to have seen better days, and it's hard to miss his glower when Kurt chirps that "I've never gotten myself into something I couldn't get out of." Kurt, for his part, is still living out of his van, fresh from extended trips to holistic retreats and classic hotbeds of bacchanalia like Big Sur. He's living so close to the bone, and has progressed so little since he was 20, that he has to bum a sawbuck off Mark so he can buy a dime bag on the way out of town.
And then, what happens? Not much, really, except a melancholy tale that is heartbreaking yet clear-eyed about the limits of human lives and human aspirations. The film isn't as talky as you might expect—it feels like there are only three or four extended dialogues, each with its own emotional rhythm and each placed in contrapuntal arrangement with long tracking shots of the outdoors, set to a sepulchral score by Yo La Tengo. The takes are often quite long but the movie never drags or meanders. Every shot seems purposeful, just as every casually spoken throwaway line is actually the product of a carefully worked out script.
The creators of this film—in addition to Reichardt, who directed, edited and co-wrote the script, there is writer Jon Raymond and photographer Justine Kurland—have some high-flown ideas about their themes, invoking Cain and Abel, for example, and "animism" and the "Romantic 'wilderness of the soul.'" Reichardt, for her part, says that the film emerged in 2004, during a period of deep alienation from a country that seemed to be succumbing to theocratic Bushism, yet she adds that the story of Kurt and Mark seemed to her a metaphor for "the self-satisfied, ineffectualness of the Left." Indeed, Reichardt pointedly places her film in that political context by including lengthy, outraged radio broadcasts from Air America as Mark drives alone at the beginning and end of the film.
Even as Old Joy is clearly a product of the middle years of the Bush nightmare, it's an appealing descendant of 1970s countercultural cinema. Its truest forebears are movies like Deliverance, The Deer Hunter, even Apocalypse Now—all films about men bonding in the wild, with spiritual, predatory and sexual undercurrents. No, Kurt and Mark don't encounter violent hillbillies in Old Joy, nor do they strafe rice paddies, but they do smoke pot (Kurt does, that is) and drink beer. Despite the lack of the manly activity of yesteryear, it is the wilderness where they retreat to succor their increasingly disillusioned selves. The biggest tragedy of their lives seems to be that they've spent their youth not doing much at all. They're recuperating from their lack of engagement, their lives of passively doing no harm, while others do harm all around them.