With exquisite tenderness and delicacy, Old Joy fluidly captures the all-too-frequent occurrence of friends drifting apart as their lives branch off in different directions. Set just outside Portland in Oregon, Old Joy follows soon-to-be father Mark (Daniel London) and the scraggly, red-bearded Kurt (Will Oldham), long-time friends who at Kurt’s suggestion decide to embark on a spur-of-the-moment weekend road trip to a quiet hot springs. There’s clearly a rich history between the two men—the precise details of their past is never discussed—but it quickly becomes obvious that things have changed. Conversations gradually fade away, leaving only awkward silences in their wake. It’s evident that Mark’s new familial responsibilities have drastically tamed him, and the ‘new’ Mark doesn’t jibe with the image Kurt has in his head. Kurt tries to tug Mark away from his domestic existence, at least for a few days, with drugs and alcohol, but as much as Mark tries to please his buddy, it’s no use—only Kurt actually smokes pot onscreen, and Mark barely finishes one beer while finding himself psychologically unable to ignore phone calls from his pregnant wife.
Even before they reach the springs, Kurt has a revelation—undoubtedly marijuana-inspired—that their friendship will never be the same, and briefly breaks down over a campfire, much to Mark’s bewilderment. It’s Old Joy‘s epitomizing sequence, where emotions overpower one while completely eluding the other. The beautiful woodsy backdrop, accompanied by crackling flames, can’t mask the pervading sadness of the moment, and the following morning’s packing up of camp is a perfect, wistful follow-up sequence.
Director Kelly Reichardt earned well-deserved kudos for Old Joy. With long shots and unobtrusive editing, she directs like a blend of Gus Van Sant and David Gordon Green, if slightly less existential than both. She expertly manages the camera, and it’s never more poignant than during Kurt’s final release of his love for Mark, a love that Kurt discovers is deeper than he’d previously realized. As the two men bathe in the springs, Kurt pops out of the water, darts over to Mark’s pool, and begins massaging his shoulders. After a surprised initial protest, Mark realizes that Kurt needs this intimacy to move on—otherwise, their relationship will be stuck in an era that doesn’t exist anymore and never will again. Mark’s subsequent relaxation and silent comprehension of the moment’s importance are perfectly executed, both in London’s performance and Reichardt’s directorial tempo. This isn’t about repressed homosexual lust, but an old-fashioned, deep brotherly affection that, sadly, has mostly vanished in hyper-sensitive 21st century America where expressing feelings for another man raises eyebrows. If her future work is as elegant as Old Joy, Reichardt is going to have a very, very successful career.