Old Joy: Northwest Passages

Almost from the moment it arrived on screens in early 2006, Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy was celebrated as a new milestone for American cinema, even an expression of independent filmmaking’s delayed arrival at maturity. In relating its deceptively simple tale about two thirty­something friends who reunite for an overnight trip to the mountains, the film covers a remarkable amount of territory in its slim seventy-three minutes, offering not only a finely detailed character study of two men approaching the edge of middle age but also a sympathetic analysis of contemporary masculinity, an impressionistic portrait of coastal-liberal ennui, and an exemplar of economical storytelling. The critical ecstasy over the film following its premiere at Sundance—Amy Taubin, for example, argued that “by its sheer existence . . . Old Joy suggests that all is not yet lost”—came despite the fact that it had been somewhat incongruously tucked away in an experimental sidebar alongside nonfiction works by visual artists such as Kevin Jerome Everson and Sharon Lockhart. What critics discovered was a well-wrought fiction grounded in all-too-real life that presents our own world back to us in ways antithetical to the obstreperous tenor of most modern media. In contrast to the light comedies that had become the Sundance norm, Reichardt’s story­telling is oblique and deliberate, nuanced, deeply assured and profoundly tentative, marking a firm defiance against the clamor—and perhaps the hopelessness—of the twenty-first century.

“Reichardt likes to call her film a ‘New Age western,’ and she subverts that most American of genres by making its journey a deeply internal one.”

Critic J. Hoberman praised Old Joy as a “diminished, grunge Easy Rider,” and that comparison is worth considering more closely. Dennis Hopper’s celebration of boomer exceptionalism follows its pair of protagonists on a wild picaresque through the Aquarian-age USA on customized Harleys; Old Joy’s weekend warriors putter out of Portland, Oregon, and into its nearby mountains aboard a well-worn Volvo station wagon. Easy Rider’s bikers dally with free-love honeys, drop acid, and are pursued by angry hicks; Reichardt’s postmacho buddy picture feels no need to insert scenes of sex and violence in order to signal intimacy between its male characters. She helps us understand the complexities of their bond through subtleties: capturing momentary glances and muted reactions, highlighting each man’s heightened response to his partner’s moods, navigating the delicate psychic balance that comes with long friendships. Reichardt likes to call her film a “New Age western,” and she subverts that most American of genres by making its journey a deeply internal one.

Old Joy’s spiritual aspirations are signaled immediately by the sharp ding of a Buddhist bell that reverberates over its opening titles. We’re introduced first to Mark (played with quiet mettle by Daniel London), a slender, long-haired fellow in casual clothing, sitting cross-legged in his backyard, attempting—without success, judging from his fidgeting—to give himself over to the bliss of meditation. We hear Kurt’s voice before we see him, as Mark’s pregnant wife, Tania (Tanya Smith), listens to an answering-machine message he left for Mark while she putters about their tidy one-family home. The couple have a brief spat over Mark joining Kurt for a weekend jaunt to some hot springs, their cramped argument structured with passive-aggressive pauses. In these few quick strokes, Reichardt paints Mark as an earnest, sensitive guy who has achieved the goals of respectable heterosexual adulthood—homeownership, marriage, a child on the way—but now struggles to deal with the constraints of domestication. And there’s another layer of home-front distress, revealed as Mark listens to snatches of liberal talk radio in his Volvo on the way to meet Kurt, the station’s masculine voices sputtering in impotent outrage against the nation’s conservative turn.

Kurt arrives late for their meetup at the mutual friend’s house he is crashing at, with a cooler slung over his shoulder and, curiously, dragging a small CRT television in a red Radio Flyer wagon, looking like some errant child who has wandered out of his orphanage, or perhaps a mellow vacationer meeting the island ferry at the dock. He’s played with infectious affability by indie musician Will Oldham, whose balding pate, frumpy outfit, nascent dad bod, and wild, almond-colored beard mark him as the quintessential hipster man-boy. The pair seem not to have seen each other in some time, but Kurt almost immediately launches into an oddly intimate statement. “You know I had a dream about you, the other night? Where you’re in, like, a hospital or something,” he tells Mark as they ready for their trip. “It was really weird, but you were the best thing about it by far.”

Old Joy’s narrative initially appeared in the form of a short story of the same title by Jonathan Raymond, first published in 2004 as a stand-alone book with accompanying photography by Justine Kurland. Reichardt, with some participation from Raymond, transformed the minimalist story into an equally minimalist film, the roughly 6,500-word tale becoming a screenplay that covers its feature-length run time in a mere fifty pages. Hewing closely to Raymond’s writing, the film takes much of its action and dialogue directly from the story. Created for the film were the characters of Mark’s wife and the couple’s dog, Lucy, the latter of whom accompanies Mark and Kurt on their jaunt. Tania is shown only in the film’s opening, but she remains an unseen presence, via cell phone calls Mark receives during the overnight trip, a lingering link back to his responsible life. Lucy, effortlessly portrayed by Reichardt’s own dog of the same name, remains a silent third companion on the trip. She trots around as they traverse the woodlands, darting off on her own little side adventures, unfazed by the shift from culture to nature, blissfully unaware of the subtle existential struggles going on between her two human friends.

The verdant landscape of the Northwest fills the screen once the travelers have entered the mountains, its manifold textures expertly captured on Super 16 mm in unhurried shots by cinematographer Peter Sillen, known primarily for his work in documentary. Portland’s urban environment is barely pictured—Reichardt shows more of its postindustrial edges—but Mark and Kurt touch on the economic transformations the city has undergone in conversation as they journey toward the mountain in the car, smoking a joint that Kurt rolled. Kurt mentions that he may want to sell some old records at a place called Sid’s while he’s back in town, but Mark updates him. “Sid’s gone, man. The rent got to be too heavy,” he informs Kurt. “Now it’s a smoothie place, Rejuicenation. Sid sells on eBay.” Kurt seems a little shaken by the news. “No more Sid’s,” he utters, glancing out the window before hitting the weed again. “End of an era.” The bittersweet original score by the band Yo La Tengo arrives to meet the ensuing silence, twangs of guitar playing as the landscape rolls beneath a cloud-covered sky.

Kurt’s return to Portland after a long absence mirrors Reichardt’s own experiences as a director. Her first feature, the Florida-shot River of Grass (1994), garnered awards recognition and was well-received critically. Old Joy was her second full-length project, completed over twelve years later. In the interim, while a vaunted American indie boom fixated on brash young male directors, Reichardt scratched around New York City trying to get a feature project going, went to movies, made several shorts on video and Super 8, and worked at various non-film-related jobs. Her friend Todd Haynes moved to Portland toward the end of the nineties, and Reichardt began spending more time in the Northwest, where she came upon the idea of adapting Raymond’s tale. On Old Joy, Reichardt continued the stripped-down production mode that these small films had allowed her to practice, shooting the feature in just ten days with a crew of six. “I kept imagining the making of [the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album] Exile on Main St., in the sense of a small group going off and holing up together in a beautiful setting, all focused on this one project,” Reichardt wrote in a director’s statement for the film’s release. “I think the intimate approach we took to making the film comes through in the film itself. The challenge with this kind of filmmaking is turning all the limitations into something that works in your favor, something that adds to the frailty of the story itself.”

Following Old Joy’s critical success, Reichardt has more than made up for lost time, completing five more features between 2008 and 2019. Four of these have been shot in Oregon: another roadless road movie, Wendy and Lucy (2008); the unromantic western Meek’s Cutoff (2010); Night Moves (2013), a subdued eco-thriller; and First Cow (2019), set in the early nineteenth century among the settlers of the Pacific Northwest. Though shot in Montana, her Certain Women (2016) nonetheless shares with those films an interest in characters who live itinerant, hardscrabble lives and find themselves losing direction on literal and metaphorical journeys, unable to locate the pathway ahead.

Old Joy gave her a chance to explore the softer expressions of masculinity found among contemporary Northwest American men.”

In Old Joy, Mark and Kurt become disoriented even on their brief trip. Struggling with paper maps and Kurt’s wobbly memories and unable to find a real campsite, the men decide to crash overnight in a makeshift spot littered with the refuse of other travelers, including an atavistically dorm-room-style couch. There, they build a fire, drink beers, fire off shots from an air rifle, and engage in bouts of stoner philosophy. As the night wears on, Kurt’s metaphysical rants become increasingly erratic; he explains  how he resisted the lessons of a community-college physics course because he was utterly assured of a teardrop-shaped model of the universe he’d thought up on his own. Reichardt shows Mark, in response to this statement, narrowing his eyes ever so slightly in the firelight as he peers over at Kurt, evidently suspicious that his friend’s passage into his thirties has brought out some darker psychological instability. But neither man can be clear on what the future holds. When Kurt asks Mark whether he’s looking forward to fatherhood, he gives a vague reply. “We’re stretched so thin with work, it’s almost impossible to imagine, but it’ll have to work itself out,” he says. “We’ll just find another rhythm. Do whatever it is people do.”

The oblique political dimension of Old Joy achieves a greater directness in sequences like these. Mark and Kurt have taken very different paths, but neither of their lives has seen the comfort or happiness they might have expected. For Reichardt, this sense of precariousness and defeat is informed by the grim realities of twenty-first-century American governance: she was drawn to Raymond’s story, she has said, because it “captured all the feeling of loss and alienation that everyone in my world seemed to be grappling with” during the Bush era, which saw a bellicose president reelected after the largest series of global antiwar protests in history. “Mark and Kurt’s relationship was, among other things, a great metaphor for the self-satisfied ineffectualness of the left.” If the pristine wilderness of the West once allowed for the projection of hope onto its uncultivated landscapes, now the woods are filled with garbage.

Nevertheless, there’s a glimmer of redemption in the subdued moments that the men spend together. Their rapport recalls Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay on friendship, wherein he observes that “no two men but, being left alone with each other, enter into simpler relations.” (Elsewhere in the same essay, Emerson offers some wisdom pertinent to Reichardt’s entire cinematic project. “We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken,” the wilderness-loving sage declares. “Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.”) The culmination of this therapeutic quietude occurs when the duo finally find the hot springs they have been searching for. Alone in a rustic spa, they remove their clothes and return to Edenic nudity, sinking into the warm baths as water drips on wood and stone. At one point, Kurt sidles over  and begins to massage Mark’s shoulders. At first resistant, Mark finally gives in to his manipulations, as seen in a shot of his wedding-ringed hand slowly relaxing its tension.

Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain had hit theaters mere weeks before Reichardt’s film screened at Sundance, which led to widespread speculation about this massage scene when Old Joy was new: covering Reichardt’s directorial return for the New York Times, Dennis Lim began his feature by stating that Brokeback Mountain “has added a permanent subtext to the notion of two men on a camping trip.” Reichardt has said that Old Joy gave her a chance to explore the softer expressions of masculinity found among contemporary Northwest American men; she has been more ambiguous about whether she intended any homoerotic undertones, though she admits that the film, which otherwise finds meaning in its elisions, allows for such a reading. Ultimately, the question of whether Mark and Kurt’s weekend might have taken a sexual turn seems irrelevant, as the psychological intimacies they share with each other are just as naked, enacting their own kind of unspoken love.

Old Joy ends with just as much restlessness as it began. Mark drives home, lefty diatribes blaring again from his car radio. Kurt wanders, probably near penniless, through downtown Portland, passing older homeless men whose presence may portend his fate. Yet despite this downbeat ending, Old Joy holds out some optimism, suggesting that the quiet journey Reichardt has just led us through could offer its own forms of respite from—and resistance to—the oppressions of everyday life.