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.”
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