For too long, the display of male friendship and affection in film has been the bruised and combative "I-love-you-buddy" brand accompanied by an ego-saving back slap and the verbal dagger sparring of cop dramas and war films. Male affection only seems permissible within a context of male suffering, imminent peril and bravery in films such as World Trade Center or Flags of Our Fathers.
But in recent years, movies as diverse as Sideways, Brokeback Mountain and About a Boy have offered hope that other sorts of male relationships could blossom onscreen.
Old Joy is one such film.
A poignant, heartfelt character study with a deceptively simple premise, director Kelly Reichardt's deeply satisfying film features remarkable performances and an honest portrait of our longing-filled, emotionally disconnected, politically apathetic times, all accompanied by a plaintive soundtrack from indie-rock darling Yo La Tengo.
Pot-smoking, post-slacker friends Kurt (musician Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London) head off for an impromptu camping trip in the Oregon woods. The trip is another exploratory, soul-searching venture for Kurt, who has whiled away his adulthood at hippie retreats and encounter sessions searching for meaningful experiences. Openhearted and tender, Kurt retains a poignant boyishness. He embraces the world head-on, his soul bare despite the fact that, in clinging to his familiar, slacker ways, he has allowed life to leave him behind – floundering, and a little lost.
Kurt is one of the most affecting male screen characters in recent memory, steeped in vulnerability and pathos, who speaks to all the honest, human things we repress to attend to the business of our daily lives.
For Mark, the trip is more fraught. His wife (Tanya Smith) is about to have their first child. So Mark broaches the subject of a camping trip with his buddy in the cautious, wishful language many couples will recognize, of one spouse asking to be momentarily let off the marital leash. Mark's wife reluctantly agrees to the trip, but frequent cell-phone check-ins remind us of the insecurity and tension the trip represents for the couple.
As the film progresses, it becomes clear that on some level the journey is a symbolic goodbye of sorts to youth and even to their relationship. As Mark prepares to become a father, Kurt mourns in one pathos-filled moment before a campfire how their friendship will inevitably change.
The remarkable virtue of Old Joy is how it embraces style as much as content, reminding us that film is as often a sensory, tactile, emotional medium as it is an intellectual or entertaining one. Reichardt (Then a Year, River of Grass) offers extended, languorous views as Mark and Kurt leave Portland and drive into the glorious scenery of the Cascade Mountains, looking for the utopian hot springs Kurt has described.
Reichardt's mellow, elongated pacing offers a literal escape from the keyed-up reality we all live in. It is one of many observant details Reichardt squeezes into the film that, as the road trip commences, Mark turns off his car radio set to "Air America." Turning his attention from the grim political discussion and the frantic chatter that wallpapers our modern consciousness, Mark focuses in on what Kurt is saying. Reichardt appears to suggest that in a world where so much seems beyond our scope to change, both politically and socially, the very least we can do is listen to the people in our lives.
All of that white noise recedes into the background as Mark and Kurt engage in that all-too-rare occurrence in our overextended lives: They talk, listen and take in the comforting spiritual salve of the wilderness rendered in cinematographer Peter Sillen's hypnotic, meditative camera work.
It's a reflex most of us have forgotten as we try to squeeze in friendship and connection, keeping our eyes on the clock. In one small sliver of the two men's lives, Reichardt paints a picture of the larger world in which we live. It's a world that will be immediately familiar even to those of us who are not post-grunge Pacific Northwesterners contending with how aging allows one precious part of life to die and a new one to take shape. Reichardt's observant script (penned along with Jonathan Raymond, based on his short story) offers multiple indications of what is emotionally transpiring for Kurt and Mark. They discuss the used record store they once frequented that has closed; the owner now sells his vinyl on eBay. Such minute details give the measure of our age, when intimate, in-person exchanges have been replaced by anonymous Internet transactions.
Old Joy at first glance might seem to be a desultory, opaque film. And if your measure of "stuff happening" is Anna Nicole's death and action-movie explosions, then yes, Old Joy is a remarkably uneventful film. But in terms of emotional content, Old Joy is so loaded with information it can trigger sudden, unexpected surges of feeling.
When the friends finally reach the natural hot springs in the middle of the woods, something quicksilver and aching passes between the two men. Though he initially recoils at Kurt's offer of a massage, Mark gives in to his friend's need for some connection, for an expression of love and affection. It is one of the most fleeting and tender moments in contemporary cinema. If you succumb to its unique rhythms and let it, Old Joy is a film that will break your heart.