Patron Pick – Old Joy

This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Patron Pick – Old Joy (2006)
Written & Directed by Kelly Reichardt

Time eats away at friendships. You can know someone for years, become very intimate with them, revealing personal information about yourself, but then some time passes, and all that closeness just fades away. As responsibilities pile up and general maturity sets in, those people you met in your formative years lose the shine they once had. It can be incredibly frustrating when you find yourself getting your life together while old friends continue to live in stasis. They cling to a chaotic, less responsible time out of fear of what could happen to them if they continue developing as people. Sometimes you feel a need to reconnect with people from your past without any real understanding of why. The most painful feeling can be when you find that connection is impossible to rekindle.

Mark (Daniel London) lives in Oregon, is married, and has a baby on the way. He gets a phone call from Kurt (Will Oldham), who wants Mark to join him in a drive out to some hot springs in the mountains and camp overnight. It’s seen by both men as a chance to catch up and talk about old times. Mark’s wife is a little annoyed but waves her husband on to join his friend. Mark promises he’ll be back early the next day, but Kurt doesn’t know exactly where the hot springs are, and they get lost. As they drink and smoke, they converse about old times, and it becomes clear that they don’t have a lot to connect on at this point in their lives. Kurt seems desperate to feel as close to Mark as he used to. There are also some clear signs, Kurt has possible romantic feelings for Mark.

Like every Kelly Reichardt film, Old Joy moves at its own pace. There is no rush to get to the next scene or even for dialogue to fill silent spaces. We often get shots of the nature around these men, tracking shots of water flowing over the side of a cliff or a slug crawling across a plant. Reichardt captures the Pacific Northwest’s damp atmosphere, a tone that matches the melancholy that hangs around this reunion of friends. Mark is at a crossroads in his life, about to become a father, and so the reemergence of Kurt sits as a decision for him to make. Will he accept the new responsibilities laid out before him, or will he try to cling to the “free” days of his youth. Reichardt delivers this without melodrama and provides a painfully realistic view of how these sorts of encounters play out.

We learn a lot just by how Mark and Kurt are introduced. Mark is meditating in the front yard of his house. Where he lives is very put together. It’s a stable place. Kurt is living in an apartment that has been sold, and so a clock is ticking before he has to move out. We learn that he has typically lived out of his van, packed with all sorts of clothes and other items. When we first see Kurt, he’s towing a red wagon and announces he just made a trade with another friend for a cooler and a small television set. Kurt’s life is incredibly freewheeling, and there’s certainly something to admire about going where the wind blows you. Often in films, the stable guy is portrayed as having discarded some crucial element of himself and needs the free guy to bring it out. Reichardt subverts our expectations without ever passing harsh judgment on Kurt.

Kurt is a sad person, convinced there’s something he needs from Mark. He just can’t figure out what that is. Kurt talks about all the places he’s traveled, saying how his recent trip has been “transformative.” While we don’t know what Kurt was like years earlier, it can be surmised that he isn’t much different now than he would have been when he and Mark were in their twenties. Mark becomes quickly annoyed with Kurt when they get lost but gives off the impression this has been a regular occurrence the whole time they’ve known each other. Reichardt intentionally obscures our understanding of what Kurt wants, whether it be emotional or physical. It would be reasonable to say Kurt likely doesn’t know what he wants.

Old Joy reminds us of the downside of nostalgia. Often, people hang on to the past’s intangible emotions, rarely critically analyzing why they felt that way. It becomes a matter of regressive feng shui, that if they can just arrange the people, places, and things in their lives the way it was “back then,” they can feel how good they felt at their peak. Even someone like Kurt, while they won’t admit it to themselves, knows that simply isn’t achievable. But something is blocking him from moving into the next stage of his life with a good chance he won’t ever overcome it. The film’s final moments seem to hint that Kurt will continue to be an unhappy wanderer, trying to recapture what made him feel free in his youth.

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