Few of the movies contending for honors this season capture the tenor of these difficult times with more sensitivity or greater attention to beauty than Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy." This triumph of modesty and seriousness also happens to be one of the finest American films of the year.
Based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond, who wrote the screenplay with Reichardt, the film tracks two old friends, Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), as they drive out of Portland, Ore., one day and into a strained reunion. As Mark, who's about to become a father, drives, and Kurt keeps the pot pipe going, they talk about old times, burning up memories and miles.
They lose their way, the sun sinks, they set up camp. The next morning, they hike deep into the woods, where they find the professed reason for their getaway, a natural hot spring. There, amid the bubbling water and gentle whirs and hums of the forest, one of the friends struggles to recover something that had gone lost, namely a sense of the other.
Much like Reichardt's first feature, "River of Grass" (1995), about a young woman who dreams of escaping her dreary life by going on the lam, "Old Joy" briefly borrows the conventions of the road movie while keeping its romance safely at bay. Quintessentially if not exclusively American, the road movie often involves a flight to freedom, however illusory the freedom and truncated the trip.
This trip isn't the bummer it might seem, thanks to Reichardt's great supply of beauty and feeling. With one pristinely framed image after another, she answers the deep current of sorrow that runs through the film and the lingering sense of regret that hangs over the men.
Working with cinematographer Peter Sillen, she offers up a world of enchantments that, along with Kurt's fumbling confessions of friendship, create a counternarrative to despair. Garbage mars the woods, but here too there are canopies of soaring trees and a luxuriously unhurried slug. The deeper the men walk into the forest, accompanied only by Mark's dog, the more they recede into the surrounding green, until they become part of the larger picture, not its centerpiece.
There is a universal aspect to this story about memory and loss, and how we use the past to take refuge from the present. You can't go home again; sometimes, you can't even share a bowl of pot the way you once did. Yet if Mark and Kurt's excursion resembles any number of classic adventures across time and space, the film is also insistently about this specific moment in time and space. Namely, an America in which progressive radio (actually, snippets from Air America) delivers the relentless grind of bad news that Mark can only listen to without comment and with a face locked in worry.
All journeys come to an end, and Mark and Kurt's brings the friends almost full circle, back to the same city street where they met up. It's an unceremonious parting, absent any of the warmth that surfaced during their hot-spring idyll. From the way Kurt looks at Mark, it seems clear he knows there won't be another reunion. From the way Mark automatically switches on the car radio and its drone ("the uncertainty about the future"), it's just as evident that only one traveler went anywhere. Joy wears out naturally for some people; others use it up. That Reichardt chooses to end her film with an image of Kurt, out in the streets and alive to the world, suggests that he hasn't given up on it, and neither has she.
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