Old Joy

Old Joy ★★★★½

9
MUBI

-Spoilers-

Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy

On the surface, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy utilises a scenario that has become commonplace in American cinema for at least fifty years: that of lost souls on a road trip. Easy Rider, Sideways, Little Miss Sunshine, hell, even Dumb and Dumber all fall into this category. However in Old Joy, Reichardt applies her own brand of formal formlessness, which makes the film feel organic and soulful, yet at the same time mysterious and meditative; it is perhaps the ultimate expression of “show don’t tell” cinema, with tone, mood and performance taking the place of exposition and narratively-convenient conflict. It certainly isn’t for everyone, but this film of thirty-something sadness and uncertainty really struck a chord with me. Perhaps this comes from being a thirty-something myself- I'm not sure I would have appreciated this film at all 10 years ago.

At only 76 minutes in length, Reichardt uses every frame, every piece of dialogue, every subtle change of facial expression and body language to tell us about these characters. Not a single moment is wasted. We first meet Mark (Daniel London) meditating in his back yard. He has settled down with his wife Tanya (Tanya Smith) in a comfortable leafy suburb. They are expecting their first baby. Mark is plainly terrified of his impending fatherhood, and jumps at the chance to take an impromptu, spur of the moment trip with an old friend, Kurt (Will Oldham), to a local forest hot spring.

Brilliantly, Reichardt sets up a picture of Kurt in our minds before we even meet him, just from his voicemail message (“you will not regret it” he drawls ominously) and Tanya’s silent reaction listening to it. We also get a sense of Mark’s immaturity- he makes a show of “asking the wife for permission” when he has clearly already made up his mind (as Tanya quite rightly points out), and gives her a cringeworthy invite to join him and Kurt which he blatantly isn’t expecting or wanting her to take up. Everything about this opening places Mark in that awkward zone of thirty-something who feels the pressure to be a “grown up” without ever having quite grown up.

Kurt, meanwhile, turns out to be exactly what we expected him to be: all unkempt beard and shambling gait, living a couch-to-couch existence revolving around the forbearance of friends, precisely the sort of person who would call up an old friend out of the blue and ask him to drop everything to do something impulsive. He is late to meet with Mark and for reasons which aren’t entirely clear he arrives lugging a small television set around with him. “I’m at a whole new place now, really” he says in a way which suggests quite the opposite. There is something so sad, so vulnerable, so relatable about Kurt, played with wonderful vulnerability and a refreshing absence of quirk by Oldham. I think we've all known a Kurt at some point our lives.

As the pair embark on their road trip, we sense palpable tension between them. The exact source of this tension is never spelled out explicitly but is always there, lurking just beneath the surface. Maybe they had a falling out over something specific in the past; perhaps (more likely) they have just drifted apart over the years. There is an awkwardness between them that comes in part from the length of time it has been since they have seen each other (with little common ground they largely fall back on talking about their shared glory days), and partly from their dissatisfaction with their own lives, along with perhaps some jealousy for the assumed life of the other. Both are equally lost in different ways: for Kurt, there is perhaps a sense that he has become “the last hippy”, with Mark standing in for all of his friends who Kurt used to hang around with, get high with, drink with, but have now moved on to focus on their careers, families, other friends, with Kurt being left behind; Mark on the other hand idealises and perhaps to some extent resents Kurt’s responsibility-light, free-spirited existence as the antithesis of the family man Mark will now have to become. This tension expresses itself in subtle ways- see for example Mark’s subdued reaction to Kurt’s story of a recent wild night out with another old friend. Many films would use all of this as a set-up to an eventual, melodramatic third-act blow-up, at the end of which lessons are learned, friendships are rekindled and so on. But the brilliance of Old Joy is that it completely accepts how necessary this cathartic, clear-the-air boiling over is for them to rekindle their friendship; the tragedy is in how both of them (especially Kurt) tiptoe up to that line, but then at the last minute shy away, retreating into their shells, leaving the things that need to be said unsaid and the gulf between them unresolved.

Kurt comes closest to crossing this invisible line twice: firstly, the fantastic campfire scene about 30 minutes in where Kurt, after self-consciously trying to explain his feelings via a clumsy physics metaphor (he thinks that the universe is in the shape of a falling tear, or something), decides to lay it out simply: “I miss you, Mark. I miss you really, really bad. I want us to be real friends again. There’s something between us and I don’t like it, I want it to go away”. The sentiment is astonishingly heart-breaking, all the more so for its uncharacteristic directness and rawness, but Mark, stunned, automatically bats it away. “We’re fine” he says firmly, shutting the conversation down in a way that says pretty much everything you need to know about that character. Eventually Kurt backs down and apologises, the moment for honesty gone. The second example comes towards the end of the film at the hot springs, where Kurt again attempts a lengthy monologue trying to explain his jumbled-up feelings, his words tumbling over one another as he tells a rambling anecdote about the interconnectedness and hidden spirituality of the world. Mark says nothing in response. At this point, Kurt goes over to Mark and, unexpectedly, starts to give him a massage. When I first watched this scene, I jumped to the conclusion that there was perhaps some degree of homoeroticism implied, but as I watch it again I'm less sure that that is the case- there is intimacy for sure, but to me it felt more like a clumsy, endearingly awkward expression of Kurt’s feelings of embarrassment and exposure (both physically and emotionally) after trying and failing to explain what is going on in his head. Again, a moment for true connection has come and gone, and the silence in its place is deafening and devastating.

To this end, Old Joy is at its core a film about the importance of communication, and how failure to communicate will inevitably lead to the breakdown of any relationship, platonic or otherwise. This is shown in the film’s final moments, with Mark returning home and Kurt wandering the dark streets aimlessly. The brilliance and clarity of the writing and direction and the subtle, moving performances of London and Oldham means that the characters always feel relatable, three-dimensional and deeply human. There is something so tragic about Kurt trying so hard and failing to re-establish old bonds, but Mark’s repressed, closed-off emotional state is just as sad.

Visually, the cinematography in Old Joy is beautiful, shot through with a real affinity with nature from the lovely “travelogue” type shots showing the beautiful American landscapes rushing by, to the more intimate, lush, almost Malick-ian close-ups of the forest which pop with a vibrant green.

Finally, I would note the soundscape, which alternates between a rather lovely, wistful Yo La Tengo score and political talk radio segments that Mark listens to in the car; the former provides a quiet, contemplative mood whilst the latter can’t help but provoke the sorts of feelings of helplessness, irritation and frustration that such programmes typically do- feelings that Mark knows all too well.

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