Old Joy (2006) dir. Kelly Reichardt
Starring: Will Oldham, Daniel London
A good friend of mine and DFD contributor Blair Stewart said of “Old Joy”, some films are served better by a short running time. Specifically if “Old Joy”, which only runs a scant 76mins, were 10 mins longer would have seemed like an eternity.
It’s remarkably simple – Mark (Daniel London) is a comfortably married 30-something, with a child on the way. Kurt (Will Oldham) is his old friend from childhood, who lives a carefree, bohemian, almost transient existence. They decide to go on a camping roadtrip in the Oregon mountains in an effort to respark a friendship which seems to have gone in two separate directions. Their destination is a derelict natural hot springs spa somewhere off the map, a place literally and metaphorical Mark needs to go in order take the next steps in his life.
Very little happens. I think I get it, the journey serves as a way for Kurt to break Mark out of his bottled self-control. Until the duo reach they’re journey Mark questions Kurt’s directions, phones home to his wife to report on his trepidations with following Kurt blindly without a map. For Kurt, it’s all an exercise, a grand plan of sorts to open Mark’s mind the world outside his own personal needs, goals and petty problems. All of this inferred – we don’t know what problems Mark has, or if he has any at all. It doesn’t matter though, because Mark represents us, the audience. For all the city or suburban dwelling yuppies Will Oldham’s free-spirited worry-free lifestyle is not a threat but a guide toward freedom.
Oldham – who is also folk musician Bonnie Prince Billy – who plays Kurt, is the perfect muse for Mark. Physically, his unkempt beard and straggly balding blond locks immediately seems threatening to Mark’s conservative lifestyle. As the two embark on their journey we feel as if Kurt is leading Mark into a disaster waiting to happen.
If there were a climax it would be the natural spa bath Mark and Kurt take together. Both naked, completely vulnerable in the desolateness of the environment, Kurt moves out of his bath and gives Mark a massage. It’s not sexual, but the contact has a delicate imtimacy which clearly makes Mark uncomfortable. In this short scene Mark’s discomfort gradually dissolves sending him into the transcendental state, Kurt was seeking for him.
Writer/Director, Kelly Reichardt, one of the stars of a new brand of American independent filmmaking – a stripped down raw, ultra-low budget aesthetic merging social realism with Dogme 95, but remaining wholly American.
I certainly disagree with how many critics have praised "Old Joy" as a masterpiece. While admirable, it doesn't really add anything more than any other contemplative roadtrip film. The result is the same with them all - the act of the journey is more important than the destination. This seems to the point of "Oldjoy", distinguished solely by it's insistance on avoiding making its point.