Old Joy is a quietly haunting film about shifting friendships.
Thursday, November 9, 2006
During the new independent movie Old Joy, there are lots of scenes where the natural world seems to speak volumes more than the film’s primary characters. Whole minutes of Old Joy are filled with the sound of birds chirping or the gurgling of healthy Oregon creeks and rivers coursing by as old friends Kurt (Will Oldham, who is also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy to indie music fans) and Mark (Daniel London) drive and then hike towards some remote hot springs in silence.
Kurt and Mark are longtime buddies who appear to have had a close relationship many years ago when they lived together with a delinquent roommate. Now, the characters’ lives have stretched out in different directions: Mark has an unmentioned job that takes up almost all of his time and a pregnant wife, while Kurt is still drifting, taking the random college course and tramping around the Western US looking for soothing hot springs and stimulating experiences.
When the film begins, Kurt calls Mark asking if he is game for an overnight excursion into the Oregon woods in search of some hot springs he has discovered. It would be a great chance for the two to catch up and bridge the gulf that has grown between them.
As the two drive on back roads trying to find the trailhead to the hot springs, the dialogue comes in fits and starts including a bit local audiences might enjoy where Kurt describes attending a rowdy party in Big Sur. Most of the first 20 minutes of the film are filled with images of the Oregon woods—skeletal metal bridges, the rain cloud bruised Northwestern sky, giant walls of evergreens—accompanied by the film’s plaintive, bass heavy score, played by indie rock trio Yo La Tengo. The many shots of the passing landscape suggest that the pair of old buddies are spending their time together staring at the passing landscape in silence more than interacting with one another.
The divide between the two is not that easy to overcome even as the two down some domestic beer by a campfire. Mark seems to think that Kurt’s theories about the universe and the difference between the woods and the city are starting to sound more and more crazy rather than amusing. Meanwhile, Kurt has a hard time empathizing with Mark, who will be having his first child in the next month or two. “I’ve never gotten myself into anything that I couldn’t get out of,” Kurt says of the thought of being a parent. “Having a kid is so fucking for real.”
While Old Joy might sound painful or boring to watch, it isn’t. Maybe it’s the hypnotic sound of nature and the beautiful images of the Oregon forest. Most likely, it’s the infrequent bits of dialogue—which are usually just Kurt spewing out a crackpot philosophy or relating a strange dream he had—that light up the screen like fireworks. As the film progresses, we, the audience, crave more and more conversations between the two old buddies. I’m sure Kurt and Daniel would feel the same way.
OLD JOY ( * * * ½ )
Directed by Kelly Reichardt. Starring Daniel London and Will Oldham • Not rated, 76 min • At the Osio Cinemas