Kelly Reichardt, who directed Old Joy, sees her film as a kind of new-age western in which men -- past their youth but not necessarily their hopes and dreams -- go into the wilderness and test each other's commitment ... with words.
And it's possible to see a bit of Peckinpah's elegiac Ride the High Country peeking through the frames of this minimalist yet beautifully photographed male-bonding film, which is adapted by Reichardt and Jonathan Raymond from the latter's short story. Set to Yo La Tengo's spacey guitar playing on the soundtrack, two drifting-apart old friends -- Daniel London's Mark and Will Oldham's Kurt -- go off on a weekend camping trip in Oregon's Cascade Mountains.
Mark is married and approaching new responsibilities -- his wife is pregnant and he's settling down. Kurt, on the other hand, is a proverbial "lost soul" unwilling and unable to fit into society. He's not so much a rebel as a frightened, insecure seeker facing his own isolation.
The movie, which is just 76 minutes long and feels just the right length, never specifically defines what "old joy" is. The concept seems Buddhist or out of primal scream therapy -- a kind of memory of joy that floats in the ether.
Looking up "Old Joy," I found this quote from a John Ashberry poem on the Internet that seems to fit -- "So that the old joy, modest as cake, as wine and friendship/ Will stay with us at the last, backed by the night/Whose ruse gave it our final meaning."
As Mark and Kurt head for the woods, with Mark's dog in tow, Peter Sillen's camera follows them along the rural roads with trees reflecting on the windshield. This is first and foremost a film about male talk -- in a car, by night near a campfire, in a diner, at a spa in the woods, anywhere that one can relax with a beer or two.
Kurt is reflective not just about the changing nature of his friendship with Mark but about much else -- the nature of the universe, endangered used record stores, cell phones, his travels and much more.
His observations are filled with both wisdom and weirdness. Yet Old Joy isn't meant to give off a contact high from stimulatingly artistic, intellectual conversation like, say, My Dinner With Andre. There's an ominous edge to it that's more like Mike White's Chuck and Buck or even a slasher film because Oldham's Kurt seems vaguely unhinged. Maybe not so vaguely, come to think of it.
Oldham, the Louisville-based alternative musician who often records as Bonnie Prince Billy, is balding with a tangled mess of a beard that makes him look downtrodden. He's a fine actor -- John Sayles cast him in Matewan as a youth. Here he lets Kurt's excitability almost get to the point of agitation but then backs off to let the gentleness emerge. There is the "lost soul" in him, indeed, but he's still also hoping to find meaning. The result is an especially touching performance.
London, to some extent in the straight-man role, has a familiar face -- an Oberlin graduate, he's been in numerous TV shows and movies without having a breakout role. That serves him well here, as he comes off as reassuring and grounded.
He's also traditionally handsome, not the first word one would use to describe Oldham. This helps the film because we can see his Mark has advantages Kurt will never have.
He's also the traditional kind of male -- the John Wayne figure, to continue taking Reichardt's western analogy seriously -- who doesn't spend a lot of time verbalizing his feelings. One wonders to what extent he even cares about Kurt at all, much less understand him.
One of the best aspects of a good minimalist film -- or of a mood piece, another term that fits Old Joy -- is watching how it can be as effective at establishing tension as a special-effects-laden Hollywood extravaganza. Only it does so with an attention to character subtleties that the latter kind of film hasn't a clue about.
In Old Joy, that tension builds in the way Kurt doesn't seem to know where he's headed as the duo drive around looking for the hot springs he's promised Mark is terrific. More than once, one wants to yell at the trusting Mark to turn around and go home -- don't go into the woods.
The tension also comes in a scene at the mineral hot springs -- a series of hot tubs supplied with water by wood flumes known as Bagby Hot Springs and sure to be a tourist destination for anyone seeing Old Joy.
There, bathing in the blissful waters, Kurt makes physical the reaching out that until then had to be verbal. We're not sure how Mark will take it or where it will lead; that's when we realize just how well this film keeps us involved in these men's search. Grade: A