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With: Daniel London, Will Oldham, Tanya Smith
Written by: Kelly Reichardt, Jonathan Raymond
Directed by: Kelly Reichardt
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 76
Date: 01/28/2006

Old Joy (2006)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Joy' Riding

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1980s and 90s, dozens of new talents established themselves with unusual, visionary works; neo-classic indie movies were pumped out like popcorn.

But with so many indie studios shutting down or being bought up by the majors, the indie movement has grown wan and anemic. This year's crop has turned out either totally forgettable oddities (Winter Passing, Lonesome Jim) or mediocre films that have been wildly over-praised (Half Nelson, The Illusionist).

Fortunately, a couple of films with a classic indie spirit have recently turned up. Andrew Bujalski's second film, shot in black and white, Mutual Appreciation opened last month in San Francisco. It deftly captures the elusively empty, awkward speech and behavior patterns of educated, listless twenty-somethings; his work has already earned him comparisons to Jean Renoir, Eric Rohmer, John Cassavetes and Jim Jarmusch.

Now we have Kelly Reichardt's extraordinary second feature film, Old Joy, following her feature debut River of Grass (1994). In Old Joy, the bearded, paunchy hippy-ish Kurt (Will Oldham) invites his old pal, Mark (Daniel London), on a camping trip.

The point of the trip is for Mark to see a hidden hot springs, located deep in the Oregon woods, but also for the two old friends to re-connect.

Fortunately, Reichardt is far too emotionally canny to turn in yet another shallow drama where, in fact, the friends do re-connect and everyone feels good at the end.

Both men are in their mid-30s, and Mark drives a Volvo, is married and is about to become a father. He listens compulsively, resignedly, to "Air America" radio and apparently donates one of his weekdays to teaching carpentry to children.

Kurt lives a more gypsy-like life, jumping from one commune or festival to another, hoping to find some kind of meaning, not unlike a sad, failed version of Andre Gregory in My Dinner with Andre (1981).

Old Joy demonstrates that, once gone, certain things can never be recaptured. (The title refers to a Chinese proverb that states: "Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.")

During the ride to the mountains, Reichardt's camera spends long, quiet moments gazing out the car window, while remaining inside the car. Nature is out there, but we're stuck in here.

Even the campsite comes equipped with a rotted old couch, left behind by other campers. Kurt remarks that the woods and the cities are becoming more and more alike: they both have trees and garbage.

When Kurt breaks down and confesses that he'd like to be Mark's friend again, Mark tentatively massages Kurt's shoulder and reassures him that they are still friends. It's far from a genuine gesture; clearly Mark would rather watch the awkward moment pass by than to actually do something about it.

Reichardt's film appears loose and casual, but every shot adds up to some greater thing. Even the long, wordless shot of the two men cleaning up their campsite -- Mark rolling up his sleeping bag and Kurt urinating on a log -- illustrates their separation.

It's telling, also, that Kurt is unable to find their original destination on the first day. While they're lost, Mark speaks to his wife on his cell phone and quietly disparages his friend.

At the hot springs, Reichardt gives the two men a quiet moment, soaking in the steamy water, before Kurt gets a moment of truth.

This scene is so nourishing, so relaxed, that the film implies for just a moment that it might have transformed our players. But Reichardt cannily includes a more mature coda that revels in emotional truth.

That's the difference between Old Joy and most other recent indies; it matches its rhythms and visuals to its story, rather than simply telling a story on film. It doesn't care about resolutions or likeability; it only seeks something that feels real. Reichardt has felt this thing deeply, has perfectly recorded it, and is now ready to share with the rest of us.

Kino's DVD release comes with a kind of low-key commentary track by Kelly Reichardt and cinematographer Peter Sillen, moderated by director Michael Almereyda (who admits that he doesn't really know what he's doing). Other extras include a photo slideshow and a trailer. But regardless of the extras, don't miss this excellent movie, which will play just as well at home as it did in theaters.

In 2019, the Criterion Collection released a beautiful new Blu-ray edition in a new 2K restoration approved by the director and cinematographer Peter Sillen. The stereo soundtrack is uncompressed. Bonuses include new interviews with Reichardt (19:12), Sillen, and author Jonathan Raymond (10:38), and a new conversation between actors Daniel London and Will Oldham (22:53). The thick liner notes booklet includes an essay by film critic Ed Halter and the short story by Raymond on which the film is based. (A new Criterion DVD is also available.)

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