Director Kelly Reichardt’s latest film “Old Joy” is a superb exercise in economical filmmaking. Not only from a financial standpoint, as the film was shot in HD and on-location in gorgeous Portland, Oregon…but the story here is so subtle and well drawn, if you blink you might miss it.
Old friends Kurt and Mark don’t see much of each other these days. It’s probably because Kurt is a skeezy, flaky hippie and Mark is now married with a child on the way. Out of the blue, Kurt calls and tells Mark he knows a perfect place to hike, camp and relax in some hot springs and this seems to be just what the doctor ordered for the domesticated Mark. Right off the bat, as Mark tells his wife Tania that he’s off, the stage is set for a dramatic tale that operates almost completely under the surface. Mark and Tania squabble over Mark’s decision, but the argument has no beginning, middle or end. It just is. And such is the case with “Old Joy.” Emotions rule the roost yet there’s nary an emotional outburst. These characters know what they’re talking about so the film feels realistic in both the characters and their actions. You could say that nothing happens in “Old Joy,” and maybe it doesn’t. But don’t tell that to the characters, both of whom are going through a middle-of-life passage.
This film reminded me of a Raymond Carver short story or a John Cassavettes film in that emotions rule the day, but their root is never fully explained. You just get a feeling. Reichardt does an awesome job floating new emotions onto the screen and letting Kurt and Mark swim around in them. Some moments are frustrating, others tense and awkward….others, kind of creepy. Yet nothing is ever spelled out. You just have to go with it. Making that easy are the actors. Singer/songwriter turned actor Will Oldham is spot-on as freespirited Kurt and Daniel London is an ideal straight man or sounding board for Kurt’s wild ambitions. “Old Joy” is very slow and quite unusual, but if you allow yourself to immerse into it, you’ll find a complex and engaging story about friendship and growing up.