'Old Joy' Review: Friendships & Detours

Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy, originally released in 2006, was the first in a series of collaborations with author Jon Raymond who would go on to write Wendy & Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff, Night Moves, as well as her latest film: First Cow. While Raymond may have written the line that forms the backbone of the film: “What is sorrow but old, worn-out, joy?”, Reichardt’s captivating minimalism carries this message home. What seems like the simplest of canvases, two old friends go on a weekend camping trip, becomes a testament to Reichardt’s confidence and quiet mastery that would go on to define her career. This is a perfect entry point into her work, serving as a sharper introduction than her more ambitious yet frenetic debut: River of Grass

The two friends Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham) serve as perfect opposites. Mark is on the cusp of fatherhood, settled down with his wife and dog, while Kurt moves from place to place unable to commit to a situation he can’t leave. The trip is less of an inflection point in their trajectories and more a wistful pause. Both men largely fail to verbalize the anxieties that haunt them and instead experience the journey in their own isolated ways. A lush score by Yo La Tengo soundtracks the trip and leads to magical moments like when Reichardt expertly layers the languorous guitars over reflections of foliage that cascade like rain across the windshield.

Sometimes small talk fills the empty spaces and sometimes the silence looms so heavy that the tension becomes physical discomfort; in a particularly spectacular sequence at a hot spring, this physicality even crosses into the erotic. Strong, subtle, performances may ground this experience, but Reichardt’s patience shines the way forward, as she allows each moment to breathe and create a swirling universe unto itself. With this cinematic framework in mind, Kurt’s speech by the campfire calling the universe a ‘teardrop collapsing through space’ seems less a half-baked rant and more like a cornerstone of Reichardt’s approach. 

The underlying truth is that while retreading the past, the men themselves are in free fall. This mirrors the national mood as snippets of talk radio alert us that the film takes place sometime shortly after Bush’s reelection in 2004. That contest itself being a failed attempt to turn back the clock to before Bush stole the election and started two wars, both of which we continue to fight nearly two decades later. These radio conversations bookend the film and frame a despondent version of the American dream, one in which listening about the Democrats latest failed attempt to stifle a malicious and unscrupulous Republican administration is just as normal as the house, family, and white picket-fence.

Like the failure of that election, the men try to reclaim and recapture what once was. However, their campsite can only exist as a ramshackle childhood hideout for so long. In the sober light of morning, the camera pulls out to a wide shot depicting it more like a trash heap. ‘You really hold onto things.’ Kurt says at one point. Old Joy is a film about holding onto memories, to friendships, to the past, a film about reflecting on who you were at one time and who you are now, but more importantly, it’s a film about letting go and moving on, wherever that road may lead.

Old Joy is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel, with the official release scheduled for December 10, 2019. 

Kelly Reichardt’s latest film, First Cow, is screening at New York Film Festival on Sept. 28 and Oct. 3rd. Tickets are still available.