in Criterion Month

Old Joy (2006)

So after reviewing movies of various lengths and ambitions this year, I’m bringing it home with a review of a movie that is decidedly small. Kelly Reichardt has made a singular career out of crafting these very intimate, contemplative films that rarely have a ton of conflict or innate drama. Of the films of hers I’ve seen, Old Joy seems like the purest distillation of this, as there’s not a ton that happens (even for the indie road movie genre), but then again, nothing really needs to. Like much of Reichardt’s oeuvre, the film’s unassuming nature is like a warm bath compared to the overstimulated nature of today’s media, or should I say it’s like a dip in a hot spring?

I’ll be brief with the plot, since there’s not a lot to get through. We see the more settled-down Mark (played by Daniel London) at his home in Portland with his pregnant wife when he receives a phone call from his old friend Kurt (Will Oldham). Kurt suggests that the two of them go on a short trip up to some hot springs in the mountains of Oregon. We see them driving around, camping, and basking in the hot springs, having the occasional conversation while the film’s camera soaks in the lush green scenery while the sparse soundtrack of Yo La Tengo lulls us along. There’s clearly a divide between who the two friends have decided to be in early adulthood, with Mark obviously being excited about his approaching fatherhood, while the more hippie-ish Kurt seems content to march to the beat of his own drum.

In a more overwrought movie, you would have Mark and Kurt getting into some sort of disagreements, pointing fingers at each other and saying “you changed, man!” Though Old Joy isn’t interested in those kind of contrived plot machinations and is content to just let these characters be themselves and exist in the endless nature surrounding them. It’s easy for me to recognize how I didn’t instantly fall in love with Meek’s Cutoff (my first Reichardt movie) when it came out, as I just don’t think I had the patience for her very deliberate pacing back then. Now though, it’s quite nice. I don’t know if it’s me getting older or the world becoming more chaotic, but there’s something beautiful about these movies that are content to let these moments sit, especially when a film like Old Joy still feels empathetic towards these guys and where they’re at in their lives.

Since I’m not sure how much mileage I can get out of talking about two dudes walking around in nature, I’ll indulge how this movie reminded me of two specific subgenres. One is the very ’00s film phenomena of mumblecore, which John asked me if this film was a part of when I chose to review this movie on our Criterion podcast. I would say pretty confidently that this is not a mumblecore movie. The biggest indicator of this is that Old Joy was shot on 16mm film, while it seems that mumblecore movies were predominantly shot on digital. As an extension of that, the film just looks nicer than most mumblecore movies, as it often makes the environment these characters are walking through the focal point, rather than just their improvised conversations. Additionally, the movie somehow manages to not be that dialogue-heavy, even if there is a scene or two where Will Oldham tells a long and winding anecdote that perhaps wouldn’t feel out of place in a mumblecore film.

That said, it’s hard not to think of another, more mumblecore-influenced movie like Humpday when watching this. Especially when both films are about two Gen X dudes wrestling with getting older and leaving their more bohemian 20s behind. However, the great thing about Old Joy is that it never distinctly makes a point of trying to be some exploration of what these types of guys were expected to do once the ’90s were over. Though it’s hard not to think of it when the character who’s a dead man walking embodiment of this also shares a first name with a certain Cobain. Instead, the audience is forced to project or choose not to project these kinds of notions onto these characters, as the silences in between their conversations leave you plenty of room to do so.

In my review of Beau Travail, I forgot to mention how that film applies to a certain subset of movies distinctly about men and masculinity that happen to be directed by women. With a lot of women directors who specialize in these movies (Elaine May and Kathryn Bigelow come to mind), I assume this isn’t as much of a choice, since studio heads were not as interested in making films about women for a long time. Though, in the case of something like Old Joy (or Reichardt’s recent First Cow), this was clearly a choice since there isn’t exactly a ton of money involved in these films. I’m not sure I have much insight to give on this subgenre, since I’m sure you could write a very long, very worthwhile piece on the topic, but there is a welcome astuteness when you have women dissecting men with their cameras that you just don’t get with guys filmin’ dudes.

Speaking of money, I did not realize until I watched this movie that there was a 12-year gap in between Kelly Reichardt’s first feature film and Old Joy. Since it sounds like she was barely able to scrape together enough money for Old Joy, it does make you realize how much of a miracle it is that she was able to establish a career off of the film’s relative success, or really that any indie auteur is able to establish a career. I was also surprised how relatable the special features on the Criterion Channel for this movie were, since Reichardt and the film’s two leads talk about filming with a crew of about 5 people and under very rushed circumstances. It’s not unlike the experience I had filming a movie with one of my Mildly Pleased colleagues, and it’s the kind of thing that reminds you what you can accomplish when you get a few of your talented friends together and go out into the woods and shoot something.