There is a scene midway through Kelly Reichardt’s Tiger Award-winning Old Joy, adapted from the novel by John Raymond, in which its two principals, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) share a conversation beside a roaring bonfire. They are en route to a secluded hot-spring in the Cascade Mountain region of Oregon. They have been forced to camp out because Kurt, who suggested the trip, has forgotten the way. Daniel, a father-to-be whose wife (Tanya Smith) had expressed reservations about his departure, is visibly frustrated with his old friend, but allows himself to be drawn into a discussion of Kurt’s foray into night-school physics classes.
Tall, rail-thin and balding, with bushy eyebrows and thick beard, Kurt looks like a wild-man, especially in contrast to his neatly turned out companion. His voice is high like a child’s, and he talks too quickly. He’ll get ahead of himself and then reverse tack, is if sputtering in time with the flames. At this moment, he is explaining to Mark that the official reckoning on the shape of the Universe is, incorrect. His pet theory, which tumbles out in stops and starts, is that all matter is slowly falling through space: that we inhabit a “tear-shaped universe.” Kurt does not seem to acknowledge the poetry of this statement, but Mark’s face betrays some reaction. The fire crackles on.
As its title implies, Old Joy is a film in which the optimism of youth has weathered over time. Mark and Kurt are both in their mid-to-late thirties; both seem to be products of the post-1960s counterculture. Mark has slipped into the mainstream, setting his car radio dial to Air America as the last vestige of his former activism. Kurt has drifted even further in the other direction- he looks and acts like the sort of person many who consider themselves to be sympathetic liberals would cross the street to avoid.
Mark and Kurt’s rapport will be familiar to anyone who has grown apart from a loved one. Their attempts at re-connection, with nature and with each other, carry the faint, mildewed whiff of good intentions. The insistent vibrations of Mark’s cell phone suggest that his wife is keeping tabs on their idyll; the fact that she does not ask to speak to Kurt serves as confirmation, and also a kind of clue. Their weekend progresses pleasantly enough, but there are no breakthroughs, no revelation of what led to their impasse, no overt renewals of friendship. They strike camp and sit together in a greasy-spoon diner. They arrive at the ancient wooden bathhouse and silently undress for a soak.
Old Joy ‘s fragility prevents me from further describing its contents, although at this point, the narrative is very nearly over. It is enough to say that it is a film that takes place inside the ‘tear-shaped universe’ that Kurt describes. It can be read as many things: as a sorrowful account of liberal alienation, as a gentle rebuttal of weekend-warrior movie tropes, or as a muted tragedy of unrequited affection. Old Joy is complex, but it is not a carefully attenuated Rhorshach test like Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, one of several films to which it will inevitably be compared (the others are Apichatpong Weerasthakul’s Blissfully Yours and, more tenuously, Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain).
As with Van Sant and Apichatpong, however, the filmmaking is exquisite. The locations are greyly beautiful, but there is none of the sledgehammer lyricism familiar from so many films about forays into Nature. Objects and gestures come loaded with significance, but meaning seems to spring from within, rather than being artfully imposed from without. The characters are ostensibly types – the earnest sell-out and the wizened hippie – but the finely modulated performances by the principals (and even by Lucy, Mark’s ever-energetic dog) avert cliché. The screenplay retains the dialogue from Raymond’s book, and yet never feels written. The final movements are ambiguous but not obscure– we can speculate on what will happen next, but the final cut comes at the correct moment. Old Joy is slender and powerful, modest and generous. It invites discussion but feels fully formed. All the critic can bring to it is his or her attention and then gratitude.