Kelly Reichardt Makes a Walk in the Woods Mean Much More

#49:  OLD JOY (2006)

Kelly Reichardt makes very, very quiet movies.   Even in her early films she seems impervious to pressure to get her characters talking more, to break the silences – which are sometimes awkward, sometimes restful, sometimes weighted with meaning.   Real life includes a lot of those silences, but it’s a rare filmmaker who can transfer them to the screen in a way that seems natural and yet not a waste of time for the viewer.  For that gift alone, I salute Kelly Reichardt.

Old Joy was Kelly Reichardt’s third feature film, the story of two old friend who go on a camping trip in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.  Mark (Daniel London) is a mild young Portland resident with a worried expression.  Kurt (Will Oldham) is a scruffy seeker who lives hand to mouth.  Kurt invites Mark to visit a hot springs retreats in the Cascades with him, but it’s an invitation that comes with a sense of urgency.  This camping trip matters to Kurt.  Have you ever had a child implore you to come outside – quick! – to see something he’s discovered?  Some sparkling rock, or bird’s nest or ant dragging away a fallen comrade?  That’s how Kurt feels about getting Mark to these hot springs.  It’s important.

And that’s really the whole plot of Old Joy:  Mark and Kurt go camping in the mountains.  They get lost for a while, and end up spending their first night in a clearing full of trash.  The next day they find the hot springs, enjoy it, and then return home.  Nothing really happens, and yet the nothingness is packed with beauty and melancholy.   Mark seems like the model of respectable young liberalism:  he works in a community garden, his wife is expecting their first child, and when he’s alone in his car Mark listens to anxious political commentary on Air America (remember Air America?).  Mark seems like a “nice” guy, but he is also numb and emotionally distant.  Kurt, on the other hand, is anything but numb.  Hs stories of visiting ashrams and collectives sometimes carry the boasting of someone who feels that his journey is extraordinary.  But just as often Kurt expresses his loneliness and longing for reconnection – particularly with Mark.  These old friends haven’t been together in a long time, and at the end of the film we sense that they may never be together again.  Kurt smokes a great deal of pot and shares both his cosmology (in which the universe is tear shaped, and slowly falling) and his dreams (from which comes the film’s title:  “Sorrow is just worn out joy.”).   Reichardt’s film is filled with patient shots of water falling and lush greenery, of a fat glossy slug sliding across a rock.  It’s beautiful and calming, and there are no overt conflicts between Mark and Kurt.  So why does it feel so mournful?  Why, when Kurt’s longing and the messiness of his life are right out in the open, is it Mark that I felt sorry for at the end of Old Joy (there’s a clue in that droning talk radio)?

I haven’t mentioned the third central character in Old Joy – Mark’s dog, Lucy.  It was Reirchardt’s own sweet golden lab, Lucy, who appeared in Old Joy and went on to have an even more critical role in Reichardt’s 2008 film Wendy and Lucy.  Lucy has since died, and Kelly Reirchardt’s most recent movie, Certain Women, is dedicated to her.  Here, in Old Joy, Lucy explores the woods and find the perfect sticks; she lives in the moment in a way that neither Kurt and Mark are capable of.  Her joy is not worn out.