There’s an audience review of Old Joy on IMDB with the headline, “Surprisingly not boring!”
While that partially puts my teeth on edge, since I tend to disdain a narrow-minded definition of narrative convention, I can see where such an exclamation can make sense here.
Kelly Riechardt’s 2006 film, co-written with regular writing partner Jonathan Raymond and based on his story, couldn’t be more lacking in plot. Old Joy is a film about two friends reconnecting--or at least trying to--potentially for the very last time. Daniel London plays Mark, a man in his late 20s/early 30s who is about to become a father. When his friend Curt (Will Oldham, a.k.a. musician Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy) calls to invite him on a hike to a remote hot spring, Mark immediately feels a tug between his desires to be carefree with his old buddy and his forthcoming responsibilities. There is an immediate understanding that this will be the last time--even if Mark is desperate to never say so out loud to Curt.
Old Joy chronicles the two-day journey to the springs, including the first night when Curt’s memory seems to fail him and the pair--along with Mark’s dog Lucy (as also seen in Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy [review]--camp out in a random location, unsure of how close or how far their destination may be. They drink and smoke under the stars and talk about string theory. Actually, Curt does most of the talking. He shares memories and dreams and genuinely tries to engage his pal in conversation. Mark, on the other hand, is practically endeavoring to stay disconnected. He says the right things and makes the right capitulations, but Curt knows every time Mark answers his cell phone to talk to his wife, he’s making excuses and apologizing for the time he is taking away from her. How far apart are these two, really? Listen to them order breakfast. Mark goes first, and Curt says he’ll have the same, only with a different meat choice and different toast. The same!
That’s about as contentious as Old Joy gets, though. There is no blow-up where the two men lay it all on the line and have a revelatory argument about freedom vs. responsibility. Rather, the whole of Old Joy hinges on one moment, a small gesture, that elevates the pair to what Curt was talking about at the campfire--their friendship moves to a different level with a wider view, allowing them to see clearly what is and what isn’t. A kind of peace is achieved, but it’s hard to say if it’s a lasting one--the final scenes suggest maybe not, but then again, Curt can be two things at once, connected and lost. Not that the next step matters, because something is released in the here and now. They find a spot to be comfortable in this melancholy. Curt explains this, too: “sorrow is worn-out joy.” What they feel passing may be sad, but it still has that initial seed of happiness inside of it.
And that’s it. There’s nothing more to Old Joy than that. Yet, it’s like the one commentator said, it’s never boring. On the contrary, Reichardt offers us lives so fully lived and so keenly observed, they are engrossing and nigh hypnotic. In a way, it’s the sheer unpredictability of a story with no a-b-c outcome that keeps you watching. There are no apparent curves on the road ahead.
It does help that Old Joy is also gorgeous to look at. It’s shot by Peter Sillen, who is mostly credited with documentaries, and his photography has that of-the-moment feel that a good documentary should have. He also has the backdrop of the forests of the Pacific Northwest to play with, which is a pretty good base canvas. The storytelling pace allows the audience to enjoy the nature as much as it allows us to indulge in the rite of passage the characters have embarked on, giving plenty to look at while we listen to the space between words.
This disc provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.