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Old Joy (2005)
Old Joy is a 2006 road movie directed by Kelly Reichardt and based on a short story by Jonathan Raymond. The original soundtrack for the film was by Yo La Tengo and is included on the compilation soundtrack album They Shoot, We Score. Old Joy tells the story of two friends, Kurt (Will Oldham) and Mark (Daniel London), as they reunite for a weekend camping trip in the Cascade mountain range and Bagby Hot Springs, east of Portland, Oregon. The film is a story of friendship, loss and alienation. For Mark, the weekend outing offers a respite from the pressure of his imminent fatherhood; for Kurt, it is part of a long series of carefree adventures. Old Joy received highly favorable reviews from critics. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 85% of critics gave the film positive reviews, based on 80 reviews — with the consensus that "a serene, melancholy beauty permeates this meditative film." Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 84 out of 100, based on 24 reviews. The New York Times called it "one of the finest American films of the year". The film appeared on several critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2006.
Mark (Daniel London) meditates on the back lawn of his tiny suburban home in the rainy desolation of Portland. Unlike his old best friend Kurt (Will Oldham), Mark has become a modern man: He has a wife, a kid on the way, and watches his health with a focused eye. Kurt, on the left hand, still makes his bed in his van or on a random friend's floor, has a hash pipe glued to his mouth, and still detests cell phones. It is Kurt's idea for them to hike into the maze of green foliage in the Oregon forest to find the hot springs they are so mildly excited about, accompanied by Mark's dog Lucy.
Reichardt spends as much time studying the subtle tension between the two friends as she does staring at the dreary northwest scenery (often from a moving car window). Inside the small car, NPR pumps through the ragged speakers and Kurt talks lovingly of their old friend Yogi and how he might have gotten laid the last time he saw him; all Mark can remember is how Yogi owes him 200 bucks. Reichardt spends more time listening to the sounds of the forest and the air outside the car than their dialogue. In fact, the only time that the subject of their dissolved relationship is breached is when Kurt drunkenly says, 'I miss you, man.' The rest of the film majors in small grunts of resentment and minor stabs at lifestyle choices; when Mark asks for dry toast at breakfast, Kurt snidely says, 'I'll have mine wet.'
Only when the two men are at the hot springs do they seem really at peace. A moment of physical contact freaks out Mark, but he gently calms down and allows Kurt his relaxation techniques. Kurt also recalls a dream where an old Indian woman comforts him by saying, 'Sorrow is just worn-out joy.' The images of the film recall the quote vividly; the forests and the scattered two-bedroom shacks in the middle of nowhere share a certain sense of regret with the two lost friends.
Reichardt's small film (it clocks in at a paltry 76 minutes) doesn't have the poetic ache of films with similar tone but rather has the feeling of its source material: a short story. We're embedded in the dampness of Reichardt's smoky forest, but not for long enough so we're lost like the pair. The small town where both men reside also recalls a college town (Ithaca instantly springs to mind) and again gives off the radiance of a time that has passed. Kurt wants to salvage this feeling, this time, because it's what he remembers as real joy. But Mark has found a new happiness of sorts in his blossoming family, and as much as he likes to oblige Kurt, we can see that the hot springs mean more to him than Kurt does. Like Mark's beer cozy admits for him: 'Whatever Happened, I Didn't Do It!'