Director Kelly Reichardt channels both the best and worst of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami in her decidedly un-commercial Old Joy, a film about the death of friendship, though one lacking the expected drama. The absence of fireworks is, however, a wise choice, as most relationships drip away from indifference rather than direct confrontation, and cinematically, there is no better way to represent the chasm between two lives than to pepper the soundtrack with mournful music and limit dialogue to a few awkward exchanges. Minimalism has the capacity to both frustrate and illuminate, and here, the director seems to prefer the latter, as she keeps the running time brief and the imagery stark. Sure, films of this sort are inherently pretentious and seem to be more film school final projects than full-blown narratives, but given that we’ve seen every conceivable twist on the “growing apart” theme, why not throw out convention and force viewers to make connections? It’s curious, though, that these two men – Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) – despite providing little for us to go on, end up fully realized creations, as their simplicity is instantly more recognizable than unnatural complexity, or artificial wisdom imbued by a screenwriter.
The outline is simple: one day, Kurt calls Mark out of the blue and asks him to take an overnight trip into the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. Kurt knows of a hot spring, and after a bit of hiking, they could camp, relax, and catch up on old times. Mark is interested, though one wonders if it’s less about the time with Kurt, and more an opportunity to escape his wife for a few hours. We don’t delve into Mark’s marriage, but a few details are all we really need: she’s pregnant, a bit sour, and likely a pain in the ass since Mark is all but reduced to a milquetoast with a snuggly in his immediate future. It’s all conjecture, of course, but the beauty of a film like this is that it welcomes debate and investigation. Mark hasn’t seen Kurt in quite some time, but we soon learn – again, through snippets and asides – that he’s still a bit of a mess, and not exactly the most reliable person on earth. No real background is provided (how close was their bond back in the day?), but it’s enough that they want to compare notes after all these years. The phone call scene works for numerous reasons, but most of all because it’s so instinctively real. Curiosity alone would compel even the angriest loner to hear about an old acquaintance; especially if there’s a possibility his life is worse than yours.
The two men take Mark’s car and off they go (with Mark’s dog Lucy in tow), though there’s about as much energy in the send-off as a living room after Thanksgiving dinner. I’m certain each knows this will be the one and only time they meet, and that realization hangs over the proceedings like a black cloud. There’s no hatred or real tension between them, but whatever brought them together so many years ago has long ago left the building. Perhaps nothing was ever really there to begin with, and drugs, alcohol, and the idiocy of youth kept both of them from saying so out loud. They drive, listen to the radio (Air America plays when Yo la Tengo does not), and occasionally chat about nothing in particular. Kurt seems to have more to say, though rambling about a Burning Man-type experience isn’t exactly illuminating, except of course to let Mark know that old Kurt hasn’t changed one iota since they last parted. Though he rarely articulates anything beyond a few half-baked notions, Kurt always seems on the verge of saying something either profound or mind-numbingly idiotic, which for him could be the same thing. Still, he’s far from a one-dimensional burnout, and we wonder what sent him into the darker regions of his own mind.
The pair get lost at one point, and though Mark is clearly frustrated, he never lets loose, which says he’s either Job-like in his patience, or simply too tired (and knowing) to get Mark wound up even further. In the midst of the travels, Mark’s wife calls several times, and his hang-dog expression betrays a sad resignation, as if marriage and family, while initially good ideas, have turned out to be far less than the brochure promised. I’d even expect that the whole “kid thing” was not his idea. But here he is, and so he’ll stay, as this is one man not in possession of sufficient testicular power to change his life course. The same can be said of Kurt, of course, though for vastly different reasons. Kurt could very well be a virgin or, as a later gesture at the hot spring suggests, a latent homosexual, though that very “move” (Kurt places his hands on Mark’s shoulders and starts a massage) he initiates strikes one as wholly innocent. It comes after Kurt’s relation of a dream, so it follows that it’s all part of Kurt’s frenzied personality. As rambling as the dream is, though, a single line of it brings the entire theme full circle: “Sorrow is nothing but worn out joy.” Old joy, if you prefer. It’s an interesting, Buddhist-like consideration of the continuum of life. We’re happy, largely for reasons unknown, then we’re not. Both Mark and Kurt would undoubtedly agree, though they probably couldn’t tell you why.
Again, it’s no exaggeration to say that this movie is little more than driving around and quietly chatting now and again, but it has a settled, almost lived-in feeling nonetheless. I was never bored, didn’t resent the precious style, and filled in the blanks when necessary, such as when I wondered how long it would be after this meeting that Kurt toked up, tipped his cap, and walked in front of a train. Mark isn’t about such dramatic gestures, and I doubt he’d take up the bottle, even after a few years of a crying child and impatient spouse. Instead, just like life, he’ll pause, sigh, and endure it all; the festering rage being quietly transformed into a blood clot that at last breaks away. Each man walked from here to there to arrive at this very moment in time, yet how much of it was deliberate, rational choice, and how much simply “happened” while they frittered away their hours? The two opposing schools of thought seem to suggest that life is either completely out of our hands, or entirely our responsibility, but as with much of our days, it’s a bit of both. Though if pressed, I have a sneaking suspicion that Kurt would have none of the latter. That said, is Kurt simply Kurt, or rather a symbol of a deceased age, where idealism and floating along seemed to be the path to true enlightenment? If Kurt is 1960s liberalism made flesh, then it seems appropriate that his very appearance suggests a dying ember now reduced to clichéd refrains and entrenched passivity. Though unlike the political philosophy, I doubt Kurt ever really had his day.