Less often than one would like, a film drifts by that re-invigorates you, affirming your belief in the often obscured power of movies to tell simple stories that engage on a level far removed from that of overblown summertime spectacle. Of course, subtle, delicate films like these have to tread a fine line between pretension and profundity -- lean too far in one direction and you're derided as an impostor, a film propped up by critics who revel in works that don't deliver upon promise. Old Joy is one of these fragile, spare films that successfully navigates the gap between high-minded irrelevance and quiet, revelatory brilliance.
Shot in just 10 days in Oregon's verdant Cascade mountain range, Old Joy marks co-writer/director Kelly Reichardt's fifth feature film, a quiet, vaguely melancholy meditation on life and the turns it takes. Acclaimed indie musician Will Oldham stars as Kurt, an unreformed ex-hippie whose ramshackle existence feels patched together, cohered by pot, beer and quasi-existential conversation. His estranged friend, Mark (Daniel London), is expecting his first child, living in a modest home with his wife, listening to Air America Radio and driving a sensible station wagon. On a whim, Kurt invites Daniel to hike and camp out near Bagby Hot Springs, a rustic retreat tucked away in the Cascades; Mark accepts and the two men reconnect in surprising, poignant ways.
Pay no attention to the breathless copy on the back of the DVD case about the film being "more than a lo-fi indie riff on Brokeback Mountain" and "an elegy for the '70s American cinematic revolution." Shades of both Brokeback and character-driven '70s films are evident in Old Joy, but I'd argue it owes a far greater debt to the cinematic tone poems of Gus Van Sant and David Gordon Green than anything else; Reichardt seems intoxicated with the natural beauty of the Cascades (and rightly so), using the burbling streams and towering trees to underscore how much of life is focused on the self, rather than taking surroundings into account. Spartan at only 73 minutes, Old Joy feels more leisurely paced than it really is, keeping the narrative free from extraneous distraction and allowing the focus to remain on the rekindling of Kurt and Mark's friendship.
But just as easily as films like Old Joy can draw you in, they can be overpraised, hyped as a must-see and bit by bit, become worn down to something ordinary. So I'll simply say this: Old Joy is a minimalist masterwork, a beautiful, ambiguous film that works on you like a great piece of fiction (not coincidentally, Reichardt co-adapted the film's screenplay from Jon Raymond's short story) and stays with you long after the film's haunting final shot has faded from view. The DVD
Appropriately, the film looks, for the most part, exceptionally gorgeous, highlighting cinematographer Peter Sillen's breathtaking work. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer suffers a bit from grain in the more lowly lit scenes, but the sequences set near Bagby Hot Springs pop with lush colors and vivid crispness that belies the film's miniscule budget. The Audio:
Old Joy is a film that screams for an immersive Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but unfortunately, all that's available is a Dolby 2.0 stereo track that nevertheless renders all of the dialogue with clarity and provides plenty of room for the evocative score (composed by Yo La Tengo and featuring Smokey Hormel's stirring guitar work) to work its magic. The Extras:
The main attraction here is a commentary track featuring Reichardt, alongside Sillen and filmmaker Michael Almereyda, who functions as a laid-back moderator; the trio discusses the genesis of the project, bits of trivia about the production and what drew Reichardt to the material. There are a few dead patches, but it's an overall worthwhile listen. Also on board is the film's theatrical trailer and a gallery of production stills. Final Thoughts:
As easily as low-key films like Old Joy can draw you in, they can be overpraised, hyped as a must-see and bit by bit, become worn down to something ordinary. So I'll simply say this: Old Joy is a minimalist masterwork, a beautiful, ambiguous film that works on you like a great piece of fiction (not coincidentally, director Kelly Reichardt co-adapted the film's screenplay from Jon Raymond's short story) and stays with you long after the film's haunting final shot has faded from view. Highly recommended.