[written by Cole Clark]
Years removed from Sundance acclaim and constant comparisons to Brokeback Mountain, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy has proven to be one of her sturdiest films. In her 26-year career, Reichardt has covered the painful reality of post-2008 America, activism by way of eco-terrorism, and the Wild West in ambitious and daring films that consistently take a less-is-more approach. Old Joy remains her shortest feature film, at just 73 minutes, and stars two actors she has yet to work with again. Every film Reichardt has made before and after Old Joy concerns women, but her recently-released First Cow (shelved until late 2020 by A24 in response to COVID-19) returns to a similar formula, focusing on two men in 1800s Oregon. What prompted the shift, and what is it about Old Joy that resonated with Reichardt, prompting a return rather than leaving it as a male-centric outlier? The context will always be interesting, but like every one of her films, the stunning amount of empathy is what makes these stories worth watching. Old Joy is no exception, a microcosm of getting older inside the crumbling walls of politics, captured in the simplest, most Reichardt way imaginable: two old friends on a camping trip with their dog.
Childhood friends Mark and Kurt reunite in Portland, looking to reconnect for a night in the woods. There’s a hot spring Kurt’s heard is great, and the two set their sights there. Played by folk musician Will Oldham (AKA Bonnie “Prince” Billy), Kurt is a burst of unpredictability to Mark’s domestic life. Seen attempting to meditate when the film begins, Mark’s comfort in his thirty-something life, complete with his wife Tanya and a baby on the way, seems to be fabricated. Like many who are faced with tough decisions after high school and college, he’s convinced himself that the moves he made were the right ones. Kurt, on the other hand, is that friend you had who was always going on about the stars. He’s a drifter, living on impulse and looking for authenticity wherever he can find it. It might be easier to relate to him at first, given his cut-to-the-chase manor of speaking, but it’s soon obvious that Kurt’s lifestyle hasn’t been any more successful than Mark’s. They’re both dissatisfied, each in their opposing, forced views of what happiness is. Mark is looking for a change of pace, while Kurt is looking for validation—that his way of life is admirable.
The combination isn’t portrayed as an explosive clash or cathartic rediscovery, but as a frustrating trek in the woods. Around the campfire, Kurt details his theory of the universe to Mark, which he’s deduced is in the shape of a falling teardrop, and he explains that he knows more than the physics professors at his night classes. He’s talking to no one, rambling until his ego either is praised or checked. Mark is uncomfortable sitting next to him, but the scene is strangely familiar to someone who’s felt the pain of second-hand embarrassment. Besides, what is growing older if not an opportunity to watch your childhood friends grow into their faults? Kurt lashes out with a common failsafe, the “I feel like there’s something between us” routine, and Mark does what he has to do to reassure him, but it’s clear there’s no getting at what’s come between them. It’s going to be buried in these woods or left behind.
Intimacy bubbles during the weekend, in spite of Mark and Kurt’s failing relationship. Once seated in their respective hot spring tubs, the tension finally dissolves and Kurt launches into a story about a dream he had where a man he cut off on his bike kept running into him on the street. Mark’s eyes stay closed, as he tries in vain to reclaim the bliss of silence, of not having to entertain his friend’s every whim and philosophical fantasy, lest he say something and come across as a jerk. Then Kurt does something unexpected: he starts massaging Mark’s shoulders. Mark’s face is practically touching the camera in this scene, showing his surprise in a way only we, the audience, can see. Eventually he settles, Kurt cooing and whispering for him to calm down and relax, but before we know it, Reichardt has cut and the film moves on. The single moment of intimacy, however forced, only lasts a moment. While this scene has become synonymous to suggest Mark and Kurt’s possible romantic relationship, it’s also an example of a genuine connection between two burnt-out men. Mark remains highly aware of Kurt’s aggravating behavior, but in this scene, there’s no way to stop it. It’s easier to let Kurt have his way and for Mark to let his guard down. Non-verbal, masculine-tinged affection is all these two can muster, and as sad as that may be, it’s also territory they were unwilling to confront until this point. Shortly after, they throw in the towel and head back to town, with Kurt’s last ditch attempt at a spark snuffed out like a joint between fingertips.
Co-written by Reichardt and author Jonathan Raymond, Old Joy’s script inserts politics so casually you’re almost encouraged not to notice it. 2006 left-wing talk radio your parents either devoured or demonized blares as Mark drives around Portland, picking Kurt up or dropping him off at the end of their trip. This simple political commentary adds an element to the film matched only by the inclusion of Reichardt’s dog, Lucy, to the main cast. It’s barely there, just along for the ride; something easy to forget and tune out, but its effect on the characters is crucial to their actions. Mark is never shown to identify with any leftist or progressive beliefs, but his nonchalant way of absorbing such incendiary opinions while driving is reflective of a nation grasping for any semblance of political guidance. Bush was recently reelected, Iraq was well under way, and the momentary stimulant of a leftist think-tank barking buzzwords like the “Southern Strategy” is there to numb the pain on your drive to work. Minimizing world problems into kitschy talk-radio makes them easier to ignore—it’s just more distraction from daily life. It’s a practice that continues even as many no longer use radios. By not overtly commenting on the political landscape, Reichardt and Raymond say more about the culture of the time than they could have through dialogue, capturing a spirit of ignorance and defeat through silence.
Absorbing heavily corporatized opinion and refusing to act is far from an appropriate response, but Reichardt’s narrative suggests this as a means of coping rather than confronting, a comfortable solution to a costly issue. Mark is stuck, refusing to act but willing to entertain the idea of action. It’s why he can’t meet Kurt’s enthusiasm and desire for connection. Upon first reuniting, Kurt says he needs to sell some records at Sid’s, to which Mark replies that Sid’s has gone out of business. “Sid sells on Ebay, now,” Mark shrugs. “Probably a good idea,” Kurt replies. For these two, the most a shuttered independent store deserves is a shrug, a complacent acceptance of the new status quo. They’re not revolutionaries or anti-establishment hippies: they’re just regular guys pretending to care.
They part on good terms, each retreating to the doldrums of daily life, Kurt seen aimlessly wandering downtown Portland while a homeless man asks him for money. Rather than chronicling the reawakening of a dormant relationship, Old Joy is precisely what its title suggests: a worn-out version of something good. Reichardt captured this in a single subject for her next feature, Wendy and Lucy, once again placing politics and personal narrative at unavoidable intersections, but Old Joy charts a type of person she’s rarely returned to: two men whose most authentic connection comes from a forced, physically uncomfortable massage. Between it are the awkward glances, the ill-intentioned grasps for attention, and a dog who is oblivious to it all, embodying the carefree spirit these two men are searching for. The weight of the world is falling on their backs, and their solution is to act like they’re managing it. To admit failure at this point would be too vulnerable—too open for a relationship that’s long forsaken intimacy, instead opting for polite reunions and a desperate sense of time slipping away.