With her new film Meek’s Cutoff set to open pretty soon it’s worth taking a look back at Kelly Reichardt’s first feature film, 2006’s Old Joy.
Old Joy is an appropriate pre-cursor to her more widely-known Wendy and Lucy. Both films take the road movie and buddy movie formats, make them much more internal, and focus on alienated characters at some critical life juncture.
In Old Joy Mark (Daniel London) is married and expecting a child when he heads out on a camping trip to the Cascade Mountains with Kurt (Will Oldham of Palace Brothers, etc fame). Mark is domestic, Kurt is undomesticated. Mark uses a cell phone, Kurt does not. Mark doesn’t smoke pot, Kurt does. But both men seem slightly adrift, but firmly so in their respective worlds.
Old Joy is such a slight, subtle film and sometimes this is its fault. It’s actually too understated. We’re granted a few tense moments between the two men that speak to their divergent paths and also to an underlying sexual tension. These are the strongest parts of the film. Sitting at a campfire Kurt tells Mark that he misses him and that he (Mark) has changed. Not much else is said. Kurt takes his comments back quickly, but Reichardt’s reaction shots to Mark push the unease.
Upon reaching Cascade Mountains the men get into separate natural spas. Kurt comes up behind Mark and gives him a massage. This is the best moment of the film. It’s tightly framed, concentrating mostly on Mark’s awkward reaction. The position of the hands are such to be both sexual and dangerous. They don’t speak. It’s uncomfortable and intimate. Is this Kurt coming onto Mark? Too friends sharing a simple moment? Their last real and true contact before they part ways, having discovered how different they really are? The moment works, and it works largely due to Reichardt’s insistence on silence and a natural soundtrack.
Not much seems to happen in Old Joy. Take Reichardt’s follow-up, Wendy and Lucy. In that film Wendy (Michelle Williams) has a concrete goal that’s stated early on – to leave. We spend the remainder of that film watching her mostly failed attempts to do so. Old Joy has no such goal and the conflict is just as subtle and under (if not “un”) stated. Reichardt relies on small comparisons between the two men, including a moment at a diner where Mark takes a call and Kurt makes a wry cell-phone joke to the waitress.
Reichardt also relies on something else: that the audience will assume the film is leading to somewhere. Giving your characters a physical destination is almost replacement enough for an emotional or narrative goal. So, in true “good screenplay” format, Reichardt reserves her strongest moment – the aforementioned massage – for the point when the goal is reached. It’s a crescendo and climax of sorts, but one that is only successful if the tension and contrast between the two men has come through for the audience to that point.
It’s the equivalent of any Hollywood film’s structure. Take an Indiana Jones film. Indy always has a physical destination (read: Cascade Mountains) and at that final, critical destination, some climactic confrontation occurs (read: massage). In an Indiana Jones film Indy will then get the goods, teach a lesson, defeat the enemies and generally restore order to the chaotic world of archaeology. In Old Joy (SPOILER) the lesson that Kurt and Mark seem to learn is that they are different men. Little order is restored, as Mark returns to his domestic and (maybe) controlling wife and Kurt wanders the streets. Reichardt plays with this classic structure and subverts it at the end, seeming to say that characters can go through a journey and not change; that the journey itself can have some meaning (Mark’s self-awareness at the spa) but not lead to drastic, often illogical life changes.